Rock and a Hard Place: WV’s Coal-Tinted Senate Showdown

West Virginia is in the throes of a political maelstrom, and the stakes are far higher than just a Senate seat. This coal-rich state has long been a battleground for energy politics, with two titans – Senator Joe Manchin and Governor Jim Justice – at its center.

Picture this: An ad portrays Senator Manchin, arm-in-arm with President Biden, celebrating the Inflation Reduction Act. Dramatic graphics suggest Manchin’s allegiance to a supposed “end of fossil fuels.” However, in a twist of irony, the same Manchin has often been a thorn in the side of progressive Democrats. He has challenged cornerstone agendas, including the Build Back Better Act, all while walking a tightrope of blue-collar labor advocacy and courting conservative business magnates. All this to protect Big Coal – the very lifeblood of the state’s economy.

But while Manchin fights off labels of being “too liberal”, his opponent, Governor Jim Justice, revels in them. Having accrued his wealth as a coal executive and grain producer, Justice has become a larger-than-life figure known for his Trump-esque antics and bombast against “wokeism.” And who can forget Babydog, his media-savvy bulldog, whose behind he gleefully offers up to critics?

While Justice’s candidness might charm some, the skeletons in his closet tell a different tale. He’s dodged countless lawsuits from various quarters, including a staggering 130 environmental and workplace safety violations. And yet, the winds seem to be in Justice’s favor, with his approval ratings dwarfing Manchin’s.

Intriguingly, this scenario unfolds as the coal industry itself faces an existential crisis. Once the beating heart of West Virginia’s economy, coal jobs have dwindled, and production has steeply declined. As this tectonic shift unfurls, many West Virginians feel caught in limbo, having to choose between their economic well-being and a clean environment. National Democrats, often perceived as aloof to the plight of rural America, further exacerbate this divide.

Governor Justice, originally elected as a Democrat, astoundingly switched his allegiance to the Republicans in a show of theatricality with then-President Trump. Since then, his tenure has been marked by stringent stances against abortion, gun control, and protests against fossil fuels. All while echoing the incendiary rhetoric and policies reminiscent of Trump.

Despite the turbulent backdrop, many West Virginians, like young environmentalist Mariah Clay, find both candidates lacking. For them, the looming Manchin-Justice faceoff is less a political race and more an agonizing reminder of the state’s perpetual sacrifices to the coal gods.

Both Manchin and Justice have personally profited from coal. Yet, while Manchin has occasionally championed the health and welfare of miners, he’s been no stranger to industry appeasements. As for Justice, his gubernatorial reign seems to mirror coal baron Don Blankenship, whose dangerous disregard for miner safety was fatally exposed in a 2010 explosion.

West Virginia’s predicament is emblematic of the larger American struggle: A populace that feels increasingly disconnected from the political elites, an industry on life support, and the looming shadow of an environmental crisis.

As for what lies ahead? With Manchin, Biden’s administration might keep dancing the fossil fuel tango. With Justice, coal could reign supreme. Either way, West Virginia stands at a crossroads, and its decision might just be the bellwether for America’s climate future. As Justice aptly puts it, “You’re dadgummed if you do and dadgummed if you don’t.”