Obama’s “War on Coal” Final Straw for Appalachia Democrats

Democratic voters in the Appalachian Mountains were never liberal. Now they’ve definitively switched to Republicans.

View of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia, July 20, 2009
View of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia, July 20, 2009 (Jeffrey Smith)

American president Barack Obama’s unfriendly coal policy appears to have turned coal-heavy districts and states in the Appalachian Mountains region decidedly in favor of Republicans. Politico reports that these areas overwhelmingly backed conservative candidates who vowed to oppose what they described as the president’s “war on coal” in elections last week.

In West Virginia, Republicans took control of the state legislature for the first time since 1931 when Franklin Delano Roosevelt turned the state into a Democratic stronghold. The state also sent a Republican senator to Washington DC for the first time in over half a century.

Obama was never popular in West Virginia. He lost the state to Hillary Clinton in the Democratic Party’s primary election in 2008 and to John McCain in the general election that year. Republican Mitt Romney got over 62 percent support there in last year’s presidential election against just 36 percent for the president.

West Virginia is the largest coal producer east of the Mississippi River and accounts for one tenth of the nation’s total coal production. 30,000 West Virginians are employed in the industry. Many more depend on it indirectly.

Coal workers were appalled when in early 2008, Obama, then a senator, predicted that under his administration, “if someone wants to build a coal power plant, they can, it’s just that it will bankrupt them because they are going to be charged a huge sum for all that greenhouse gas that’s being emitted.”

As president, he failed to enact the sort of cap-and-trade legislation that would have taxed carbon emissions but constructing new coal plants has become virtually impossible anyway as a result of new environmental standards. This has already pushed dozens of old coal-fired power plants into retirement.

While West Virginia was trending toward the Republican Party for several years already, in Kentucky, too, the president’s coal policy appears to have helped decide the race, according to Politico — in favor of Senate leader Mitch McConnell.

McConnell won by the largest margins in the state’s coal-producing counties, often topping the 70 percent mark.

The coal-producing areas’ shift to Republicans has to do with more than coal, though. These regions belong to what Colin Woodard, a journalist, called “Greater Appalachia” in his 2011 book, American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America. “Lampooned by writers and screenwriters as the home of rednecks, hillbillies, crackers and white trash,” the area is characterized by a fierce commitment to individual liberty and it is intensely suspicious of both the traditional Southern white elite and Northeastern social engineers. Besides Kentucky and West Virginia, it encompasses Tennessee, southern Illinois, Indiana and Ohio as well as parts of Arkansas, Missouri and Oklahoma.

According to Woodard, “Greater Appalachia has shifted alliances depending on who appeared to be the greatest threat to their freedom.”

It was with the Union in the Civil War. Since Reconstruction, and especially since the upheavals of the 1960s, it has joined with [the] Deep South to counter federal overrides of local preference.

As the Republican Party changed from being liberal to conservative and the Democratic Party lost the support of Southern whites when it reinvented itself as a left-wing party, it was only a matter of time before Appalachians would switch definitively to the Republican side. Obama’s “war on coal” gave them just the excuse they needed to eject the few Democrats who had managed to hold on to their seats in the region.