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Sen. Manchin is the last in a line of formidable West Virginia Democrats who promoted coal interests

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — Joe Manchin’s impending departure from the U.S. Senate marks the end of an era for West Virginia’s conservative Democrats, who for decades held outsize influence in Washington. It’s the latest sign of the party’s steady decline in the state that often has paralleled the demise of Appalachian coal.

Manchin, 76, is the last in a line of formidable Democratic senators from the Mountain State who promoted coal interests at the national level. He stayed true to a path set by stalwarts like Robert C. Byrd, Jennings Randolph and Jay Rockefeller, even as he navigated the shifting terrain of national energy policy.

While Democrats moved aggressively away from fossil fuels in an effort to combat the threat of climate change, Manchin pressed for an “all of the above” energy policy intended to maintain coal as at least a component of the nation’s energy portfolio. He presented himself to voters as the reasonable moderate between two extremes.

Manchin has played that role to the hilt during President Joe Biden’s administration, on everything from infrastructure and prescription drug prices to health care aid, as Democrats cling to a 51-49 Senate majority after narrowly losing their House edge last fall.

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He had faced a difficult path forward to reelection next year, in a prospective matchup against popular Republican Gov. Jim Justice, in a state that Donald Trump carried by nearly 40 percentage points in 2020. Biden’s clean energy agenda could stall if Republicans retake the Senate or be replaced if the Democrat is unseated.

Manchin worked with both Biden and President Barack Obama on energy policy, embracing clean energy subsidies and pressing fellow Democrats to invest in clean coal technology and other alternative ways to keep miners employed as chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. He was a longtime promoter of mine safety and federal benefits and regulations to protect coal miners with black lung disease. Some advocates say he did not do enough and sometimes blocked more aggressive measures or looked to limit their impact on the industry.

In West Virginia, the national party’s aggressive move toward clean energy often left Manchin and other Democrats vulnerable to Republican attacks, including when Trump campaigned in 2016 on a promise to end what he described as Obama’s “war on coal” and to save miners’ jobs.

Trump’s Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, openly acknowledged that coal jobs were going away and would need to be replaced, causing a political backlash that further damaged the standing of Democrats in West Virginia. Manchin never defended the remark but was criticized by West Virginia Republicans for what his party’s nominee said.

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Trump did not bring back the industry back. The number of coal jobs in West Virginia fell from 11,561 at the start of his presidency to 11,418 at the end in 2021, slowing coal’s precipitous decline but not stopping it. Still, Democrats like Manchin often found themselves targeted as enemies of coal in a state where it was still widely seen as a cornerstone of the economy.

Ironically, Manchin’s Senate retirement announcement came in the aftermath of big victories this past week for Democrats in the neighboring states of Kentucky and Virginia, but they are not as reliant on coal economically. Though the number of employees has dipped, West Virginia has had the highest percentage of all coal mining employees in the nation since 2004. By 2022, coal mining employees in West Virginia made up nearly 30% of all coal employees in the country.

John Deskins, director of the West Virginia University Bureau of Business and Economic Research, said 75% of West Virginia’s coal jobs were disappearing before coal production dropped because of mechanization.

Much of coal’s decline also stems from a major drop in use of the resource for electric power generation, and “not much there changed after the 2016 election,” said Deskins.

West Virginia Democratic Party Chair Mike Pushkin said Trump never fulfilled his promise.

“Donald Trump did absolutely nothing for the coal industry,” he said Friday.

Less than 20 years ago, coal made up 50% of electric power generation nationally. Now it’s down to less than 20%, said Deskins. At its peak in the 1950s, coal mining employed 100,000 in West Virginia, whose population at the time was about 2 million.

Manchin, who was first elected to the state House of Delegates in 1982, entered politics amid a massive loss of coal jobs in West Virginia. The first year he was in the Legislature, the state unemployment rate was 21%.

The state’s politics at the time were dominated by Democrats, but under a big tent that included liberals, moderates and conservatives.

Retired West Virginia Wesleyan political history professor Robert Rupp, who called Manchin “the last of the old Democrats,” said the strategy made sense back then.

“There was one tent where everyone could go underneath that tent and they would tolerate each other, as long as they won,” Rupp said. “He was right there.”

Rupp said it ultimately became untenable for Manchin to embrace Biden’s environmental initiatives and defend coal.

“He’s the middle guy,” Rupp said. “To pin him down is very difficult.”

Manchin, Rupp said, was neither an avid New Deal Democrat nor a hard-core conservative.

“He’s effectively straddling the issue,” he said. “If your job is to protect the coal industry, then you would run away from Biden and his plans. But instead, you get on the table on that.”

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Manchin’s refusal to disown coal completely helped him stay viable in a state with deep roots in the industry. Coal was what dozens of West Virginia communities were founded on. Towns and cities started as coal camps owned by mining companies where workers were paid low wages to work in unsafe conditions. Immigrants from Europe and Black Americans from the Jim Crow South migrated to isolated hills and hollers and made homes. They fought for workers’ rights and took pride in difficult work that helped power the nation.

Manchin, whose uncle died in the coal mines his grandfather started working in when he was 9 years old, understood all that.

“It is such a part of the history and culture,” said West Virginia University history professor William Hal Gorby, “that any sort of outside criticism of it naturally leads to sort of this perception that if you criticize the whole thing, you’re also criticizing my grandparents, my parents, my brothers, my relatives who worked in coal. It’s a personal attack more than anything.”

Manchin, he said, had the ability “to sort of talk that language to ordinary West Virginians in a way that they also understand.”

West Virginia University law professor Pat McGinley, who was part of then-Gov. Manchin’s team investigating an explosion in 2010 at Upper Big Branch mine that killed 29 miners, said Manchin, Randolph and Byrd had a long history of publicly advocating for safer mines. The Upper Big Branch report was, he said, “the first real objective investigation of a mine disaster going back a century.”

The independent investigation led by a former federal mine safety official held both the federal Mine Safety Administration and the West Virginia mine safety agency responsible as well as the operator, Massey Energy. Still, he said, it didn’t result in meaningful policy changes on the state or federal level.

“Government regulators played a major role in that disaster,” McGinley said. “It’s one thing to support coal mine health and safety, it’s another thing to enforce the law to protect miners.”

West Virginia Democrats just wanted to ensure that mine operators were being responsible, said retired Democratic Sen. Mike Caputo, a former coal miner and United Mine Workers of America representative.

He said the state Democratic Party was branded “anti-jobs and anti-coal” because of environmental policies coming from the national party.

“Nothing could be further from the truth,” he said. “No one that I served with wanted to shut the coal mines down and put people out of work.”

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Associated Press data journalist Kavish Harjai in Los Angeles contributed to this report.