WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama's plan to curb power plant pollution put Democrats running for office in coal country in a tough spot on Monday: Criticize their president, or side with him and become part of what could be a major drag on their region's economy.
For the most politically vulnerable, it was not a tough call. The plan might prove a boon for those who want to combat climate change, but it was characterized as a boondoggle for Democrats in tight races in coal-producing states.
Kentucky's Democratic nominee for Senate, Alison Lundergan Grimes, said Obama was attacking her state's coal industry and planned newspaper ads criticizing the president. In West Virginia, Senate hopeful Natalie Tennant promised to oppose Obama if elected in November. And in the House, Rep. Nick Rahall, a West Virginia Democrat facing a tough re-election bid, said he would introduce legislation to block the plan.
Even the Democratic chairwoman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, who also faces a tough re-election fight, questioned the measure's utility.
Polls show a bipartisan national majority of Americans support limiting greenhouse gas emissions, which scientists blame for climate change, according to a Washington Post/ ABC News poll released Monday.
Fifty-seven percent of Republicans and 79 percent of Democrats support state-level limits on greenhouse gas emissions, according to the poll. And 70 percent of all Americans say the federal government should limit greenhouse gases from power plants.
Deep in coal country, such proposals are politically untenable.
And that is where Democrats are expected to mount a hard fight to preserve their majority in the Senate, including in coal-rich Kentucky, West Virginia and Colorado. In those states, Republicans have already been hammering Democratic candidates for ties to Obama and what the GOP has branded his "war on coal."
In some cases, Democratic candidates have joined that criticism of Obama in the hope of improving their chances.
In Kentucky, Grimes pledged to "fiercely oppose the president's attack on Kentucky's coal industry."
"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.
Separately, her campaign starting buying newspaper ads complaining: "President Obama and Washington don't get it. Alison Grimes does."
Grimes' opponent, the top Republican in the Senate, brushed off Grimes' position as politically driven. Coal accounts for 90 percent of the electricity generated in Kentucky, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters at Louisville's airport.
"I'm not surprised she says she's pro-coal," McConnell told reporters. "What else would she say?"
In West Virginia, Tennant vowed to oppose Obama.
"I refuse to accept that we have to choose between clean air and good-paying jobs, when I know West Virginia can lead the way in producing technology that does both," she said.
Similarly, Rahall promised legislation to block the plan in the House.
"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 Colorado, Sen. Mark Udall called the plan "a good start" on dealing with a genuine threat.
"Climate change is threatening Colorado's special way of life," he said. "Coloradans have seen firsthand the harmful effects of climate change, including severe drought, record wildfires and reduced snowpack."
But he credited his state for taking steps already without federal mandates.
And the Democratic chairwoman of the Senate's energy panel, Sen. Mary Landrieu of oil-rich Louisiana, opposed Obama's plan.
"While it is important to reduce carbon in the atmosphere, this should not be achieved by EPA regulations," Landrieu said. "Congress should set the terms, goals and timeframe."
Democrats are defending a precarious six-seat majority in the Senate and many of their incumbents are imperiled. With five months to go before Election Day, the new climate plan gives Republicans ample time to criticize their rivals on an issue that provides a livelihood for many voters and their communities.
Obama's initiative aims to cut carbon dioxide emissions from power plants by nearly a third from 2005 levels by 2030. But it delays the deadline for some states to begin complying until long after Obama leaves office.
For instance, Kentucky will have to find a way to make an 18 percent cut from 2012 levels. West Virginia faces a 23 percent cut, while Colorado faces a 36 percent cut, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.