In W.Va., coal is a kingmaker

by David M. Shribman

MOORESVILLE — Here, in this tiny unincorporated community equidistant from Shinnston (population 2,306), and Smithfield, Pa., (pop. 817), the dogwoods are only now beginning to bloom, their annual springtime metamorphosis from white to green just underway. And just past Crooked Run Road, the coal trucks line up, one by one. 

Dogwoods are one of the unmistakable heralds of spring, symbols of transformation, signs that one season has ended and another is beginning. The coal trucks are symbols, too, of an industry that itself is undergoing a transformation in a state whose political environment just experienced a dramatic transformation itself. The popular Republican governor has undertaken a challenge to the state’s Democratic senator, himself a key figure in the Washington political calculus. 

The likely Senate race between Gov. Jim Justice, a former Democrat, and Sen. Joe Manchin, whom Democrats barely count as one of theirs, already is emerging as one of the most important political races of 2024. 

Manchin, along with Independent Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, is, alternately and equally, either the key vote for Democratic priorities in the Senate or the leading roadblock for Joe Biden’s agenda. A senator since 2010 and the only Democrat from West Virginia on Capitol Hill since 2015, he may seek reelection in a state that gave Donald Trump a 68.6% vote in 2020. Only Wyoming, with a 69.9% Trump vote, was higher. 

“Given the closeness of the control of the Senate and given that the Democrats have so few seats in states that lean Republican or are overwhelmingly Republican like West Virginia, this is going to be a huge race,” said Jason MacDonald, a West Virginia University political scientist. “It’s hard to handicap the outcome. All close Senate races this time around will be watched closely, but this one will have more panache than most.”  

That’s because of several important factors. The Democrats have little margin of error in a Senate where, with the three Independents caucusing with them, they have a slim 51-49 advantage. West Virginia has undergone perhaps the most dramatic political transformation of any state; it was so resolutely Democratic after Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal that it veered into the Republican electoral-vote column just three times in the 13 presidential elections between 1932 and 1984 — only to vote Republican in all six presidential elections of the 21st century. 

Then there is coal, with recoverable seams in 43 of the state’s 55 counties and a staple of the economy since the middle of the 18th century. So vital was coal to the region that the Chesapeake and Ohio and Norfolk and Western railroads were constructed to haul the precious black mineral to market. Today, West Virginia, which produces a seventh of the country’s coal, is the second-largest coal producer in the nation, again just behind Wyoming. 

It was coal that prompted Manchin, himself with ties to the energy industry, to push back on Biden’s environmental initiatives, especially the provision to penalize utility companies that didn’t increase their use of renewable energy sources each year. This was natural for a lawmaker representing a state where coal is an important part of the economy and where 89% of electricity is generated by coal, far more than the 19% generated by coal nationally. 

But for all the talk about the decline of coal, Justice’s office last month released a statement boasting that the $3.8 billion in coal exports, much of it to the Netherlands, India and Brazil, made it the state’s biggest export item. 

That tells us two vital things: that protections for the coal industry will be a principal issue in one of the country’s premier Senate races, and that Justice’s pressure on Manchin won’t allow the senator to give ground on Washington climate-change measures that involve restrictions on coal. 

That much is certain. What’s not certain is whether Manchin will in fact seek another term. He might consider an independent candidacy for the White House. The mystery only deepened when, late last month, he issued a statement saying, “I will win any race I enter.”  

He has done so before, but then again, Manchin hasn’t had a heavyweight opponent, especially one as formidable as Justice, who claims credit for advances in the state’s education system and who surely will point out how the energy concessions Manchin thought he won in the Inflation Reduction Act haven’t been implemented by the Biden administration. The result is that Manchin — who earlier this month supported a Senate resolution rescinding the administration’s pause on new tariffs for solar cells and modules from four Asian countries — is more alienated than ever from the White House. 

And while Manchin hasn’t plunged into a reelection campaign, Justice faces a challenge from the right from Rep. Alex Mooney, whose website bears a “hardworking, faith and freedom” folio and speaks of “working with President Donald Trump to defend traditional values, protect the Second Amendment and promote respect for all human life.”  

Manchin, along with Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Jon Tester of Montana, is one of three Democrats facing races in states Trump won in both 2016 and 2020. His challenge may be the greatest of the three. At stake is control of the Senate — and whether those coal trucks keep roaring through Mooresville. 

David M. Shribman is the former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.