VIRGINIA — Mitt Romney likes coal. A lot.
And the coal industry in Virginia likes Romney back.
Unfortunately, there’s not enough to like about how this state’s news outlets have covered the role of coal in the presidential campaign.
Romney has been hitting the coal message hard lately, and not just by proclaiming his fondness for the stuff at the first presidential debate. One day after Virginia-based coal company Alpha Natural Resources announced mine closures and layoffs in mid-September, Romney’s campaign was on the air with a pair of ads criticizing President Obama for overregulating the coal industry. And last Friday Romney brought his message straight to coal country with a campaign stop in Abingdon in southwestern Virginia (with free hard hats to the first 250 people on hand!), where he was introduced by Alpha’s CEO.
Romney’s not alone in making a bid for the allegiance of coal country, though. New regulations aside, Obama has advocated “clean coal” as part of his “all of the above” energy strategy, and a new Obama ad exploits the controversy over Ohio coal miners being ordered to attend a Romney rally to argue that the challenger is “not one of us.” (A similar struggle over the claim to be coal’s standard-bearer is playing out in Virginia’s Senate race, where Democrat Tim Kaine touts his role getting a coal energy plant built even as he is attacked as an enemy of the industry.)
In other words, coal has recently moved to the center of the message war in this swing state. It was already central to the money story—though there’s not much of a contest there. The top political donor in the state this cycle, according to the Virginia Public Access Project, is Richard Baxter Gilliam, the founder of Abingdon-based coal mining company Cumberland Natural Resources. (Cumberland was purchased in 2010 by Massey Energy, which was in turn acquired by Alpha.) Gilliam has given $500,000 to American Crossroads, a conservative super PAC, and $250,000 to Restore our Future, a pro-Romney super PAC. Alpha Natural Resources has given another $100,000 to American Crossroads, whose chairman, Mike Duncan, is head of the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity. All told, Virginia’s energy industry has donated about $2.8 million this cycle, according to VPAP—which puts it a close third behind partisan political committees and the real estate sector—and coal has accounted for nearly half of that, with the vast majority of those dollars going to Republicans.
Much of that money circles back into coal- and energy-related ads. A September New York Times story noted the vast sums that have gone into “ads promoting coal and more oil and gas drilling or criticizing clean energy” around the country, and while breakdowns by ad messages aren’t readily available in Virginia, there’s been a barrage of energy-themed ads here. (VPAP does show the top third-party media buyers in the state; number one by a mile is Crossroads GPS, which is affiliated with American Crossroads and which has often hit fossil-fuel themes in its ads. The group spent nearly $930,000 in the state in the past week alone.)
So the political story around coal in Virginia is rich—but most of the coverage to date has been less so, and not only because, as I’ve written before, most news outlets here aren’t doing enough to factcheck the ads on the airwaves.
Let’s take a look first at some of the more interesting coverage, which was spurred by the announcements of layoffs at Alpha. Bob Lewis of the Associated Press turned in a sharp report on Sept. 23 that explored the historical importance of coal in Virginia politics—in particular how coal-country Democrat Rep. Rick Boucher lost his House seat in 2010 after supporting “cap-and-trade” legislation, even though he helped shaped the failed bill to benefit the utilities who were his biggest backers.
Lewis also offers this, on coal’s cultural significance:
“What people don’t understand is that down there, coal is a way of life, not just an energy source,” said Christopher J. LaCivita, a veteran national Republican campaign strategist who lives in Virginia. “What you’re doing down there when you attack coal is you’re rejecting an entire culture, people who’ve raised their families on coal.”
The Romney campaign ads exploit exactly those sentiments. They are poignant and personal, featuring miners and coal families telling wrenching personal stories of how coal’s decline is their decline.