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CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — Scrapping to keep a West Virginia Senate seat Democratic in a state that's sprinted to the right, Natalie Tennant is counting on her allegiance to the coal industry to separate herself from an unpopular President Barack Obama.
Her approach reflects common Democratic strategy and tactics this midterm election year in energy-producing states that lean Republican: Sen. Mary Landrieu is vying for a fourth term representing Louisiana; Alaska Sen. Mark Begich is running for re-election for the first time; and Kentucky Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes wants to replace Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. It's also the proven path for the man Tennant wants to replace — retiring Democrat Jay Rockefeller — and the state's other senator, Joe Manchin.
The group champions the energy industry, criticizes federal energy regulations and blasts "cap-and-trade" proposals, which feature economic incentives to reduce carbon emissions. Some in that group endorse extending the Keystone pipeline.
But all of that may not be enough for Tennant against GOP Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, a seventh-term congresswoman who still has the energy industry largely on her side, to say nothing of an increasingly conservative electorate that hasn't opted for the Democratic presidential nominee since Bill Clinton in 1996.
Obama lost all of West Virginia's 55 counties in 2012 and won just 35.5 percent of the vote statewide. West Virginians take the administration's proposed pollution rules on coal-fired plants, among other regulations, as an affront to the coal industry, an economic driver here that is perhaps even more important to the state's cultural identity.
Tennant, the 46-year-old secretary of state, tailors her message accordingly. "This is about an opportunity for me to show that West Virginia is first and foremost to me," Tennant told The Associated Press. "I'll stand up to the president when it comes to coal, when it comes to his job-killing EPA regulations."
She recently campaigned with North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, a former private-sector energy executive who won her Senate seat in 2012 railing against the Obama administration's energy policy, even as the president lost her state by 20 percentage points.
Republicans clearly want to use Obama's poor standing to their advantage. For months, not far from the West Virginia Capitol where Tennant works, motorists could see a billboard displaying a picture of her at a 2008 Obama rally. "Natalie Tennant (hearts) Obama," the billboard blared.
Capito has built a 4-to-1 cash advantage over Tennant by running as a moderate from the polarized GOP-controlled House, an approach made possible when she avoided a tea party-fueled challenge from the right, despite less than enthusiastic reviews of her voting record by well-funded conservative groups like Americans for Prosperity and the Heritage Foundation.
Tennant counters that Capito, 60, is a Washington insider who backed national flood insurance rate hikes and the GOP's proposed changes to Medicare, but voted against equal pay for women.
Like her GOP colleagues, Capito says equal pay is already the law. She says she worked on flood insurance fixes and wants to stem the national debt.
Tennant, a household name after 12 years as a television reporter in West Virginia, emphasizes her ties to a state that still values retail politics on the ground. In that effort, her opponents may have assisted her with that downtown billboard: The image shows her raising the gun — an old-style musket — she earned as the first woman to serve as West Virginia University's Mountaineer mascot.
But none of that has kept Capito from building multiple advantages, including on energy. The West Virginia Coal Association endorsed her and she's raised $362,450 from oil, gas and mining interests — 22 times Tennant's haul, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan research group that tracks money in politics.
At the Democrats' national Senate campaign office, spokesman Justin Barasky said the approach of energy-state senators and candidates simply reflects locally focused leaders. "Voters want senators who are willing to stand up to their national parties when it makes sense for their states," he said.
Tennant's best energy-state model is perhaps Louisiana's Landrieu, who was recently promoted to lead the Senate's energy committee as she seeks a fourth term representing a leading oil state. Landrieu previously has run with endorsements from oil and gas executives and leaders of industry organizations, and she's made her new post a major part of her pitch.
This week, she unveiled a new statewide television ad highlighting her fight against Obama's moratorium on certain offshore drilling after the 2010 Gulf oil spill and her effort to win Gulf Coast states a greater share of royalties from offshore production.
She's reaped the benefits in her campaign coffers: Oil and gas interests have contributed more than $529,000 to Landrieu's primary campaign committee over the last five years, making it her second-leading source of direct support behind lawyers, who chipped in $1 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Mark Miller, a Lafayette Republican who owns multiple oil and gas firms, is among the industry supporters for Landrieu. He recently told The Associated Press, "You can't overstate what it means for this state to have her experience and influence, especially with the energy chairmanship."
Another first-time Senate candidate, Kentucky's Grimes, is cozying up to the coal industry that dominates the eastern part of her state that borders West Virginia's coal country.
"Washington Democrats and Republicans need to be realistic about what powers our nation," Grimes wrote in her jobs plan. "I call on the president to do the right thing and develop an energy policy that does not threaten Kentuckians' livelihoods and that gives Americans the benefits of our coal resources."
In Alaska, Begich is campaigning in a state so dominated by the oil industry that it pays dividends directly to all residents. Begich was one of 11 Democrats last week to urge Obama to approve the Keystone XL oil pipeline by the end of May.
Six of them face contested re-elections this year, including Begich and Landrieu.
Mattise reported from Charleston. Barrow reported from Atlanta. Follow them on Twitter @JonathanMattise and @BillBarrowAP.
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