President Obama’s aggressive focus on climate change is intended to fire up Democrats’ environmentalist base, but it’s burning some of the party’s most endangered incumbents.
Nobody has felt the burn more than Rep. Nick J. Rahall II, West Virginia Democrat, who is in one of the toughest races of his nearly 40-year career and is struggling to distance himself from Obama energy policies that Republicans have labeled a “war on coal.”
Mr. Rahall can’t escape the issue. Mr. Obama made headlines last week by touting a scientific report that said catastrophic effects of climate change already were occurring and by announcing a series of executive actions to cut carbon emissions.
In West Virginia, the nation’s No. 1 coal-producing state, voters fear job losses resulting from Obama administration actions, including pending Environmental Protection Agency regulations targeting emissions from coal-fired plants.
“What we have is the most anti-coal president in history, and Rahall was an early supporter of his,” said Conrad G. Lucas II, chairman of the West Virginia Republican Party. “Every time that the president utters any words involving ‘climate change’ or ‘global warming’ or anything that can hurt West Virginia jobs, it is discussed with great frequency in West Virginia.”
The Rahall campaign did not respond to emails and phone messages seeking comment, but West Virginia Democratic Party spokeswoman Brittni McGuire said that “there’s just no greater champion for our coal jobs in Congress” than Mr. Rahall.
“West Virginians know that Rep. Nick Rahall has always stood up to anyone in Washington who threatens West Virginia’s coal workers and miners — always has and always will,” she said.
Mr. Obama’s energy agenda also is undercutting Senate Democrats whose survival in November elections is key to retaining majority control of the chamber. Vulnerable incumbents include Sens. Mary L. Landrieu of Louisiana and Mark Begich of Alaska.
The pivot to climate change, timed to coincide with Senate debate of an energy efficiency bill, was widely viewed as an attempt to rally the Democratic base and curry favor with California billionaire Tom Steyer, who has pledged $100 million — half of it from his own pocket — to help elect supporters of an agenda against climate change.
“He doesn’t want to antagonize several mega-donors who are fiercely pro-environment, but in the process this could weaken the Democrats in several key states,” said Gregory R. Valliere, chief political strategist at Potomac Research Group, an independent polling and consulting firm based in Washington.
The dynamic is particularly evident in West Virginia, where energy policy is a top issue and the Rahall race is among the most closely watched in the nation.
Mr. Rahall is the longest-serving of the vulnerable House Democrats, and outside groups from both sides of the political divide have poured millions of dollars into the race.
West Virginia has undergone a dramatic shift to the right in recent years, although registered Democrats vastly outnumber Republicans. About half of the voters are Democrats, 30 percent register as Republicans and 20 percent decline party affiliation, according to state elections officials.
But the state’s voters lean conservative regardless of party affiliation.
In the 2012 presidential contest, West Virginia backed Republican Mitt Romney over Mr. Obama by a margin of 62 percent to 36 percent.
Mr. Rahall is the only Democrat in the state’s three-member delegation to the House of Representatives. His loss would create West Virginia’s first all-Republican delegation in more than 90 years.
Mr. Obama’s health care law also is unpopular in West Virginia.
The national Republican Party, conservative super PACs and Mr. Rahall’s likely Republican opponent, state Sen. Evan H. Jenkins, have criticized Mr. Rahall for voting for the Affordable Care Act and for backing Mr. Obama’s plan to tax carbon emissions through a “cap-and-trade” system.
Mr. Rahall has insisted that he never voted for cap-and-trade, though he did vote for Mr. Obama’s 2009 budget that set the stage for it.
He will face a challenge in the state’s Democratic primary Tuesday from Richard Ojeda II, a retired Army officer. Mr. Rahall is expected to win.
Mr. Jenkins, who switched from the Democratic Party last year before his run for Congress, is unopposed on the Republican primary ballot.