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New EPA Rules Burn Red State Democrats

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy during her announcement Monday of a plan to limit power plant greenhouse gases.
Evan Vucci
Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy during her announcement Monday of a plan to limit power plant greenhouse gases.

While many on the left embraced the Environmental Protection Agency's new rules to reduce coal-burning power plant carbon emissions by 30 percent by 2030, some red state Democrats couldn't put enough distance between themselves and the Obama administration.

You would have had a tough time, for instance, distinguishing the reaction of Kentucky Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes from that of the man she hopes to replace, Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Senate's top Republican.

"President Obama's new EPA rule is more proof that Washington isn't working for Kentucky. Coal keeps the lights on in the Commonwealth, providing a way for thousands of Kentuckians to put food on their tables," she said in a statement Monday. "When I'm in the U.S. Senate, I will fiercely oppose the President's attack on Kentucky's coal industry because protecting our jobs will be my number one priority."

It's no exaggeration to say Grimes sounded exactly like McConnell on this. From his statement: "I will offer legislation this week to stop this assault on Kentucky and the broader U.S. economy."

In a state that Republican Mitt Romney won in 2012 with 60 percent of the vote versus Obama's 38 percent, saying that you will "fiercely oppose" the president is exactly the contrast you want to establish if you're Grimes. It's a political necessity.

McConnell's strategy against Grimes, Kentucky's secretary of state, has been to define his Democratic challenger as a potential Obama rubber stamp. So the new rules are a twofer for Grimes. Not only is she able to bash the Obama administration, but she also gets to stand up for her state.

Knowing that Grimes' strategy is to try to out-coal McConnell, his campaign countered by essentially calling her a hypocrite — pointing to her fundraising with Sen. Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader. Reid, D-Nev., is no friend of the coal industry. He has opposed new coal plants in his state, once saying, "Coal makes us sick."

Like Grimes, Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., is another red state Democrat in a bad spot. He couldn't have sounded more unlike most of his fellow Democrats, who mostly supported the new EPA rules.

"There is a right way and a wrong way of doing things, and the Obama administration has got it wrong once again," Rahall said in a statement. "This new regulation threatens our economy and does so with an apparent disregard for the livelihoods of our coal miners and thousands of families throughout West Virginia."

Rahall, in his 19th term, is considered one of the House's most vulnerable Democrats. Romney won his district with 65 percent of the vote to Obama's 33 percent. The congressman has been repeatedly targeted by Republicans in recent years as his victory margins have shrunk from double to single digits.

As a sitting member of Congress, Rahall could and did go further than Grimes, saying he intended to introduce legislation along with his delegation colleague, Republican Rep. David McKinley, to stop the new carbon rules from taking effect.

Still, there were signs of broad-based national support for the kind of regulations announced Monday by EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy.

A recent Washington Post-ABC News poll indicated broad approval for the federal government to act to stop global warming. Seventy percent of respondents said the government should move to reduce global warming. Meanwhile, an October 2013 poll for the League of Conservation Voters, a Democratic-oriented environmental group, indicated that about 75 percent of voters in "swing" Senate states, including Arkansas, Georgia, Virginia and North Carolina, favor the idea of EPA rules to limit power plant carbon emissions.

It's this kind of support that gave the Obama administration the political room for its decision, despite pushback from red state Democrats, congressional Republicans and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. ("The president's plan is nuts," said Speaker John Boehner, in his statement.)

It's also the kind of support that encourages midterm fundraising. A few hours after the announcement, the computer servers at Obama's Organizing for Action operation churned out fundraising emails asking recipients to "stand with" the president's tough actions against climate change. Once you submit your email, you get a page requesting a donation.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Frank James joined NPR News in April 2009 to launch the blog, "The Two-Way," with co-blogger Mark Memmott.