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Coal miners listened as GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney spoke during a rally last month in Beallsville, Ohio. Both Romney and President Obama have made the state a focal point of their campaigns.
Coal miners listened as GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney spoke during a rally last month in Beallsville, Ohio. Both Romney and President Obama have made the state a focal point of their campaigns. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Undecided voters in Ohio got a lot of attention this week from President Obama and GOP rival Mitt Romney. Coal may be the key to many swing voters in the Buckeye State, which remains a top coal producer.
It's an issue weighing on coal miner Rick Carpenter's mind at the Barnesville Pumpkin Festival in southeastern Ohio.
"Save coal — fire Obama. Yeah, I've got one of those signs in my yard," he says.
Carpenter says he's afraid of what will happen to his job if the president is re-elected. The argument is that the administration has hurt the coal industry because of regulations from the Environmental Protection Agency.
"A lot of the people around here were strong Democrats for the longest time," Carpenter says.
In towns like Barnesville, you can come upon a yard that has signs for multiple Democrats running for office alongside a "Fire Obama" sign.
"The southeast Ohio economy is very much dependent upon coal," says David Cohen, who teaches political science at the University of Akron. "There are a lot of coal jobs. It's really part of the fabric of many of the counties in the southeastern part of the state and has been for generations."
Cohen says President Obama has other problems in the socially conservative region besides worries that he'll damage its major industry.
"Most voters are voting on potentially one issue that moves them, or they're voting on very little information — possibly the last 30-second ad they saw in the campaign," Cohen says.
And both campaigns are trying to get the last word.
One Romney ad claims that "Obama wages war on coal while we lose jobs to China, who's using more coal every day. Now your job's in danger."
And an Obama ad counters, "Seen these new ads where Mitt Romney says he's a friend of coal country? This is guy who wants to keep tax breaks for companies that ship American jobs overseas."
The United Mine Workers of America union says it won't endorse either candidate. And Mike Carey, who heads the Ohio Coal Association industry group, says Ohio is a battleground not just for the presidency but also for the future of coal mining.
"It's a tough market right now," Carey says. "Coal prices are going down. If you look at publicly traded coal companies, their stock prices are going down, layoffs are everywhere. So it's battle time in the coal industry, and a lot of this is because of the policies of this administration."
Many analysts say the problems in the coal industry have more to do with the low price of competitor natural gas than with regulation. But in southeast Ohio, coal is the proverbial third rail.
"We don't need to fire Obama and we don't need to stop the war on coal," says Charlie Wilson, the Democrat running for Congress in Ohio's 6th Congressional District. He says one thing he and his opponent, Republican Rep. Bill Johnson, agree on is coal.
"Now we have a new gas and oil opportunity in this district, where we're going to be able to have mega amounts of gas and oil that we'll be able to pump out of the area, and that's down under the coal," Johnson says.
Meanwhile, back in Barnesville, Mark Rex says he's undecided about the presidential race. He says he doesn't want coal jobs to go away, but he also sees a future in natural gas.
"There's been a lot of jobs. A lot of guys are leaving menial jobs to go to the pipeline to make good money. I'm thinking about leaving my job to go to the pipeline," Rex says.
A lot is likely to change in the coal and natural gas industries regardless of the outcome of this election.