Strickland, Portman Spar Over Ohio Coal Country

Strickland, Portman Spar Over Ohio Coal Country
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BERGHOLZ, Ohio – Sen. Rob Portman visited a coal mine Wednesday in this small town of less than 1,000 people, touring the facilities and talking about the difficult economic environment facing the miners of Southeastern Ohio.

It was a simple pitch to an area of the state small in population compared to the big cities of Cleveland and Columbus, but that could be critically important up and down the ballot in November’s election.

Appalachian Ohio, comprising more than 30 counties along the southern and eastern borders of the state, is a blue-collar, working-class area that is home to the state’s coal industry. This region was hit hard by last decade’s recession. That makes it particularly receptive to Donald Trump’s economic message, and an area that Republicans expect to carry by a significant margin in the presidential election.

But former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland, the Democrat challenging Portman for the Senate this year, hails from Appalachia; he represented this area for a decade in Congress and won a high proportion of the vote in both of his runs for governor. Portman is making an aggressive push in Strickland’s old stamping grounds, arguing the former governor has abandoned the values of Southeastern Ohio. The incumbent senator hopes high vote margins here will help him secure victory this fall.

Democrats, on the other hand, are counting on Strickland’s name ID, betting that voters here will remember his work in Congress and as governor, and will support him in high enough numbers to help him unseat Portman – and potentially help Democrats flip control of the Senate.

Portman hardly mentioned Strickland – or Trump and Hillary Clinton – during his conversations with the Rosebud Mining Co. employees here, but the dozen miners were clearly supporters of the senator and of Trump.

They told Portman about the difficulty they faced with environmental regulations and a tough economy, and of their belief that Washington has forgotten about them. They explicitly criticized Clinton for her comments earlier this year that her energy policies  would “put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of work.” Though she has since clarified she was talking about making sure her administration would take care of the miners and others in these struggling areas, the comments infuriated Republicans in Appalachia.

Speaking with reporters after his tour of the mine, Portman argued that Strickland is not the same politician who once represented coal country. He used to be a much more conservative Democrat, one who was pro-gun and pro-coal, Portman argued, but Strickland’s time working at a liberal think tank in Washington after losing re-election in 2010 changed him.

“He’s turned his back on this part of the state in many respects,” Portman said. He pointed to Clinton’s comments, and said Strickland – who called them “inartful” – should heave denounced them more aggressively.

“People around here don’t appreciate politicians who say one thing and do another,” Portman added. “Unfortunately, what you’ve seen with Ted Strickland, my opponent, is he went from pro-coal to anti-coal just as soon as he got out of office and went to Washington and took a job there and he continues to be taking these positions that support what Hillary Clinton has said and what President Obama has done."

Strickland calls such attacks unfair. He told RealClearPolitics in an interview that he views Clinton’s statement in its full context, pointing out that her overall message was one about making sure that miners are not left behind.  

“I think Rob Portman is engaging in wishful thinking,” Strickland said of his opponent’s efforts in Appalachia. “He doesn’t know what life is like in Appalachia. He doesn’t know what life is like for coal miners. I do. I grew up there.”

Neither Democrats nor Republicans argue Appalachian counties will be the driving force in the election since urban areas in other parts of Ohio dwarf their populations. But in a tight election – the RCP average shows Portman with a 6.4-percentage point lead – the tally in coal country could make a difference.

In the 32 Ohio counties that are part of Appalachia, according to the Appalachian Regional Commission, Strickland won the 2006 governor’s race by more than 200,000 votes, and drew 47,000 votes more than Sherrod Brown, the Democratic Senate candidate that year. In 2010, Strickland lost to John Kasich, but still won the Appalachian counties by 30,000 votes. Meanwhile, his lieutenant governor, Lee Fisher, ran for an open seat Senate against Portman. The Republican won big, with a more than 100,000-vote margin in Appalachia.

Strickland won 17 of the 32 Appalachian counties in his 2010 loss. In 2012, President Obama won just four of those counties while carrying the state, and Brown won just 10 in his re-election win.

The point is that even in a terrible year for Democrats nationwide – and one in which Democrats were swamped in Ohio – Strickland kept his margin close by carrying Appalachia at a much higher clip than fellow party candidates.  The party is hoping he can repeat that feat this year.

“Some thousand votes can decide an election in Ohio,” said John Haseley, the Athens County Democratic chairman and a former chief of staff to Strickland.  “That margin can be collected in a little county like mine that will overperform for Ted Strickland in an enormous way. That margin can come out of our region that will overperform for Ted Strickland more so than another Democrat statewide. We intend to make the difference if it’s a close election to make sure that Ted wins."

Republicans are working hard to mitigate that potential. Portman has visited the region multiple times trying to increase his name identification here and outside groups have swamped the area with advertisements attacking Strickland’s record as governor and his work for the liberal Center for American Progress in the intervening years. A new $1 million ad buy, announced this week by Freedom Partners Action Fund, a group with ties to the Koch Brothers, attacked Strickland’s governorship and labeled him bad for coal.

State Rep. Andy Thompson, a Republican who represents a district in eastern Ohio next door to Bergholz, said at first he was worried that Strickland’s popularity in Appalachia could have a negative impact on his own re-election race, but noted that he’s pleased with the work Portman has done in the area.

“For those of us down ticket, it’s a relief that [Strickland’s] proving to not be very popular, and some of the stuff about fighting for you and fighting for the middle class doesn’t work when you’re a high-paid lobbyist in D.C.,” Thompson told RCP.

And, of course, this area of the state is one where Trump’s economic populism is particularly well received. He’s zeroed in on the white, working-class areas like Appalachian Ohio as critical to winning the White House. Rep. Bill Johnson, the Republican congressman who represents Strickland’s former district, said Trump support means a great deal.

“It’s clear they are adamantly opposed to political elites like Hillary Clinton that want to shut down the coal industry,” Johnson said. “Political elites like Hillary Clinton who think they’re above the law and can carelessly disregard our national security and carelessly mishandle our national security secrets. They’re fed up with that, and that’s who Ted Strickland is aligned with, and they’ve made it very clear they’re not going to support that."

The Portman and Republican efforts appear to be working, at least to some degree. P.J. Deluca, a miner at Rosebud Mining who was there for the senator’s visit, said he voted for Strickland in 2006, but not in 2010, and is solidly behind Portman this year. His reasoning mirrors the attack message Republicans have waged against Strickland: Deluca called him a “turncoat” for working for a liberal group in D.C.

Strickland “sided with the EPA, sided for all this other stuff like clean energy and all that. Totally turned his back on the coal industry,” Deluca told RCP. “When he was here, he was all about the coal, he was all about what was in the present. He went to Washington, he became part of the agenda down there.”

Democrats in the area, however, say Appalachian voters have long memories. Haseley, the former Strickland staffer, pointed to highways and other local projects Strickland helped bring to the area as a congressman, and said local works matter to voters here.

“I think a lot of voters remember it, and a lot of voters have forgotten or did not know,” Haseley said. “We need to remind them of that in the closing months of the elections."

Doug Davis, the mayor of Trimble in Athens County, brought up Strickland’s work in Congress helping keep a coal mine open after it flooded, and said miners and their families remember that.

“I know he’s a little bit behind right now but I think in this area here, I just can’t see how they cannot really support him strongly like they did when he was congressman,” Davis said.

Strickland admits that he’s behind in the race right now, and in the interview appeared frustrated by some of the Appalachia-related attacks, particularly regarding his work at the Center for American Progress – where he said he led a study about the damage Western coal was causing for miners in Appalachia. Still, he’s convinced that by November he’ll have the same support in Southeastern Ohio he had in his races in the past.

Portman “can say what he wants to say about Appalachia,” Strickland said. “I’ve lived there, I’ve served Appalachia. I know the people there. Will he pick up a few votes there? Probably. But I still will do better in Appalachia than most Democrats, and that will help me win the election."

James Arkin is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @JamesArkin.

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