How well will a Massachusetts liberal fit in among Southern blue-collar Democrats? That question will be answered over the next couple of weeks, when Elizabeth Warren goes to West Virginia to stump for Natalie Tennant, who is seeking to replace retiring Sen. Jay Rockefeller in a hotly contested race in coal country against Republican Rep. Shelley Moore Capito.
On July 14, Warren will head to the Eastern Panhandle, as Tennant, who is currently secretary of state, rolls out her education plan. Warren also plans to appear in Kentucky later this month with Alison Lundergan Grimes, the Democratic nominee for Senate.
West Virginia has been trending red, breaking from its Democratic roots. In 2012 President Obama lost all 55 counties, the first time a Democratic presidential candidate was completely shut out in West Virginia. Capito is the heavy favorite to win, and if she does, it would be the first time since 1956 that the state has picked a Republican to fill a Senate seat.
For Warren, being in coal country is a test of whether she can boost the Democratic ticket and whether she can find an audience among the kind of Democrats that supported Bill and Hillary Clinton. In 2008, Clinton scored her biggest presidential primary win in West Virginia over then-Sen. Barack Obama, and Bill Clinton won Kentucky and West Virginia both times he ran for president. More recently, Bill Clinton stumped for Grimes, who is up against Senate Minority leader Mitch McConnell (R).
On her visits in both states, Warren is expected to tout her student loan bill that failed to overcome a filibuster earlier this month but is becoming a rallying cry for embattled Democrats who are looking for a populist message that will resonate with their traditional base and with independents.
But coal will no doubt be the elephant in the room in West Virginia and Kentucky, given that Warren supports Obama’s move to curb carbon emissions.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) earlier this month released a 645-page plan that calls for a 30 percent reduction in carbon emissions from fossil fuel-burning power plants in the next 15 years. On the Senate floor, Warren praised the plan, applauding Obama and the EPA, and blaming power plants for carbon pollution and climate change.
A short time later, Tennant, who calls herself pro-coal, released a “Coal and Energy Jobs Agenda” that calls for expanding solar and wind power, investing in new technology and protecting coal jobs. Tennant has repeatedly said that she strongly opposes the president’s regulations and that the regulations would undermine West Virginia’s coal economy.
Rather than fight over coal, Tennant is hoping that Warren can bring her anti-Wall Street cred to West Virginia, which is one of the poorest states in the country.
“This campaign is a clear choice between the West Virginia values I represent and the Wall Street dollars Congresswoman Capito represents,” Tennant said in a statement. “Wall Street banks have too much say over Washington already, West Virginia working families and college students deserve a Senator who will speak up for them.”
The visit comes as West Virginia’s Higher Education Policy Commission announced a more than 5 percent hike in tuition for four-year public universities. Warren has called for a tax on the rich to pay for lowering interest rates for college students saddled with college loans.
“I strongly support Natalie’s campaign because I have no doubt she will work in the Senate to make sure working families have a fighting chance to succeed in this country again. I also have seen Congresswoman Capito in action on the House Financial Services Committee, and time and again I have watched her side with powerful financial interests over working people,” Warren said in a statement. “Wall Street already has enough Senators looking to advance its interests, and West Virginia deserves a Senator like Natalie who will wake up every morning and go to bed every night focused on how to fight for working families.”
Tennant has also appeared with on the stump with Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) as well as other West Virginia Democrats.
But Warren’s appearance underscores her emergence as the go-to blue collar populist, who is able to match her policy proposals around education with her personal story as the daughter of working class parents. Warren has become the darling of progressives who are looking for an alternative to Hillary Clinton, and see her as a champion of the working class.
The bumper sticker slogan “I’m from the Elizabeth Warren wing of the Democratic Party,” is popular among progressives, who want to see Warren run in 2016. But Warren, who will headline the annual Netroots Nation conference in next month, has said she has no plans to launch a White House bid.
Like Clinton, she just released a book, “A Fighting Chance,” and has talked about how the system is rigged for the rich, an argument that resonates with Democratic activists in West Virginia.
“What we are stepping away from is not the coal industry, but the corporate fat cats, that’s the real problem and the focus on working class people is something that all West Virginia Democrats can agree on,” said Benjamin Seebaugh, an environmental activist, and recent West Virginia University graduate. “If Warren sees that Tennant is a step in the right direction then I’m more enthused.”
For her part, Hillary Clinton has said that she plans to offer help to Democrats facing November headwinds, but she has yet to appear for any candidates so far. Once her book tour is over, she is likely to campaign.
But during her book tour, she has stumbled over questions about her wealth, leading some Democrats to question whether she is an effective messenger on issues of fairness and economic inequality, themes that have become mainstays for Democrats. Clinton has been on clean up duty after saying she was “dead broke,” when she left the White House, and her high dollar speeches have come under scrutiny as well. For some, the former first lady, has come to embody the kind of wealth and privilege that Warren and other Democrats have railed against.
For Warren, the question is whether she can grow her profile beyond the coastal and New England liberals that have elevated her. In West Virginia, a state where pro-gun, pro-coal Democrats occupy the top elected posts, Republicans are painting Warren as an unfit messenger.
“Natalie Tennant’s embrace of Elizabeth Warren’s aggressively liberal, anti-West Virginia agenda is truly astounding, but sadly, not surprising. Natalie Tennant has repeatedly denounced those behind the War on Coal and ObamaCare while seeking their money and support behind voters’ backs,” Capito’s campaign spokeswoman, Amy Graham, said in an e-mail. “Bringing in one of the staunchest opponents of coal and West Virginia’s way of life is just the latest instance of Natalie Tennant’s blatant hypocrisy and disrespect for the people of this state.”