The Week in Politics: Democrats Struggle in Coal Country, Christie Struggles at Home

The most important election news and political dynamics at the state and local levels.
by | February 19, 2016
West Virginia hasn't supported a Democrat for president since Bill Clinton in 1996. (AP/John Raby)

Want to read this regularly? Subscribe to "The Week in Politics" newsletter for free.

Democrats Struggle in Coal Country

The West Virginia Coal Association did something the other day that it hasn't done in 20 years: The trade group endorsed a Republican for governor.

Blaming President Obama for undermining coal with his environmental policies has worked well politically for Republicans. "As the Democratic Party has ramped up its attacks on the coal industry, Republicans have seen political success," said Conrad Lucas, who chairs the West Virginia GOP.

Throughout much of the 20th century, West Virginia was one of the most reliably Democratic states in the nation. But the state hasn't supported a Democrat for president since Bill Clinton in 1996. What's more, the GOP took control of both chambers of the state legislature two years ago for the first time since the Great Depression. With Democratic Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin term-limited, many predict West Virginia is the most likely state to switch party control among the dozen holding gubernatorial elections this year.

But the Democratic decline isn't limited to West Virginia.

Democrats have been wiped out in most coal mining states during the Obama presidency, as they have been in other parts of the country that aren't urban or coastal. When Obama first won the White House, congressional districts where there are active coal mines elected almost an equal number of Democrats and Republicans. Fast forward to today and the GOP has a commanding 45 to 6 edge in such seats, according to a count by Morning Consult reporter Jack Fitzpatrick.

Republicans hold 75 percent of the state Senate districts that are home to coal mines and 66 percent of the state House seats. The GOP also controls 25 of the 30 legislative chambers in the 15 states where at least 1,000 people work in coal mines.

Republicans have already made sizable inroads in Kentucky, a coal state where Democrats enjoyed a winning streak longer than in most parts of the South. Last November, Democrats lost four of the six statewide offices, including the governorship.

Kentucky Republicans are hoping they can erase the Democrats' four-seat majority in the state House, either in special elections next month or come November when the whole House is up for re-election.

Former state Auditor Adam Edelen, a Democrat who was defeated last fall, will be joining forces with a sports radio host to start a new political organization that will seek to augment reinvention efforts by the Democratic Party itself.

"It will be an idea factory and an identifier of new talent who are drawn to these new ideas," Edelen told the Louisville Courier-Journal.

Big Shifts in North Carolina

The North Carolina legislature is set to approve major changes to the state's political landscape and election-year calendar.

On Friday, the state House is expected to approve a new map that will substantially alter the boundaries of the state's 13 congressional districts. The map was approved by the state Senate on Thursday.

Conversely, senators are expected to approve a bill on Friday that would move federal primaries this year from March 15 to June 7. The House passed that measure on Thursday.

The bill would also eliminate runoffs for all primary elections this year, including state races, meaning the top finishers in each party would proceed directly to the general election in November. Traditionally, two candidates have proceeded to a runoff when no one takes at least 40 percent of the primary vote.

All this activity was prompted by a federal court's ruling earlier this month that found the state's current congressional map was an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander. The new map working its way through the Republican-controlled legislature is expected to maintain the GOP's current 10-to-3 edge in the U.S. House seats. Not surprisingly, Democrats argued that the new map represents an unfair partisan gerrymander that may also fail to pass legal muster.

"You can't use partisanship as a proxy for race and that's exactly what you've done here," Dan Blue, the state Senate Democratic leader, complained to GOP lawmakers, who hold the majority in both state chambers. "You again managed to stuff about half of the black population of the state" into three districts, he said.

Republicans made no bones about the fact that, having control of the process, they felt entitled to help their own cause.

"Our intent is to use the political data we have to our partisan advantage," said GOP state Rep. David Lewis. "I acknowledge freely that this would be a political gerrymander, which is not against the law."

The legislature's actions would be rendered moot if the U.S. Supreme Court grants the state's request to stay the lower court's order, keeping the current congressional map intact. But that's considered unlikely.

No Welcome Mat for Gov. Christie

After devoting many months to his presidential bid, Gov. Chris Christie is finding it's hard to go home again.

A lot of items have been waiting in the New Jersey Republican's inbox, including a depleted transportation fund, enormous pension shortfalls and potential debt defaults in Atlantic City.

On Tuesday, Christie unveiled a $34.8 billion budget proposal that achieves balance without raising taxes. But Democrats, who control the legislature, don't like his proposed cuts to health care and complain that his lack of specifics for making up the gap threatens to leave the state's transportation fund empty.

It's not clear how much clout Christie will have during the upcoming budget negotiations. Just 29 percent of state residents have a favorable opinion of the governor, according to a Rutgers-Eagleton poll released Tuesday -- his lowest ever in the survey.

"After six months on the campaign trail and a year of being mostly out of state, Gov. Christie is not being welcomed by New Jerseyans with open arms -- in fact, quite the opposite," said Ashley Koning, assistant director of the Rutgers-Eagleton poll.

In his budget address, Christie openly pleaded with legislators not to treat him like a long-term lame duck during his remaining two years in office: "Are we going to waste those days on partisanship and politics, or will you work with me to use those 630 days to help bring relief to our overburdened taxpayers?"

The Week in Scandal

Disbarred Democratic Attorney General Kathleen Kane of Pennsylvania announced Tuesday that she will not seek a second term. But she didn't cite her political and legal challenges (she's facing an impeachment investigation as well as criminal charges). Instead, she used the usual political reason: family matters. "While I love Pennsylvania, I love my sons first," she said.

"In the end, Kane's political demise was more a suicide than a homicide," wrote G. Terry Madonna and Michael L. Young in their column on Pennsylvania politics. "Lack of experience, made worse by bad judgment, a temperament ill-suited for state politics and the tendency to make enemies doomed her."

In Missouri, state Rep. Don Gosen resigned Wednesday under pressure from House Speaker Todd Richardson. Gosen, a Republican, didn't specify his reasons, saying it wasn't related to his work. He told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch the matter was being handled "within the confines of my home with my family."

Gosen became the third Missouri lawmaker to resign since last May, when Speaker John Diehl was caught in a sexting scandal. "I think this issue is substantially different that what was last year," Gosen told St. Louis Public Radio. "So I'll leave it at that."

Ricardo Lopez, the mayor of Crystal City, Texas, was freed Wednesday after posting bond following his arrest for disturbing a city council meeting. Lopez was charged with inciting a riot, resisting arrest and illegal possession of a controlled substance.

The mayor was indicted earlier this month, along with two members of the council, on federal bribery and conspiracy charges. He faces a recall effort but refuses to step down.

In Milwaukee, Mayor Holding On

Mayor Tom Barrett has twice before won re-election by big margins, but on Tuesday he took just 45 percent of the vote against three challengers. He will now face Alderman Bob Donovan, who took second with 34 percent, in a second round of voting on April 5.

Barrett has enjoyed an enormous fundraising advantage. But with Milwaukee experiencing real problems with poverty and a spiking homicide rate, he won't win a fourth term in a coronation. Barrett's political ally, Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele, also faces a real threat for re-election. In Tuesday's voting, state Sen. Chris Larson narrowly outpolled Abele. Larson and Abele will square off in April.

Want to read this regularly? Subscribe to "The Week in Politics" newsletter for free.