In a pub down the road from Democratic Senator Joe Manchin’s office in the hilly town of Fairmont, a cluster of drinkers argue over what Joe Biden’s multibillion-dollar climate legislation means for their home of West Virginia, America’s most coal-dependent state.
“We’re not expecting people to come home covered in soot with a wad of cash in their pocket to help us buy groceries any more,” said Jonathan Harden, a brewer who has lived in the town for 22 years. “It’s moved on.”
“But the mines are still open,” retorted one drinker. “Why would you be from West Virginia and sign a document from the White House that says you’re against coal mining in West Virginia?”
Manchin spent months blocking the Democrats’ efforts to pass a big-ticket climate bill last summer before eventually relenting. The state’s mercurial senator, who Biden’s top clean energy aide had accused of “single-handedly wrecking the planet”, went from persistently opposing environmental protection measures to enabling the biggest green spending package in American history almost overnight.
Democrats hope that the Inflation Reduction Act, which contains nearly $370bn in subsidies, can unleash a wave of green jobs across America, bringing prosperity to the faltering economies of the country’s depressed Appalachian region.
But shortly after Manchin backed the plan, his approval rating in West Virginia — one of the regions likely to benefit from the green spending splurge — plummeted.
A Morning Consult poll in October showed 51 per cent of West Virginia voters disapproved of Manchin’s job performance, compared with 38 per cent in the second quarter of the year, placing him among the country’s least popular senators.
In a Senate hinging on razor-thin margins, Biden can ill-afford to lose a precious seat in 2024. For Democrats, winning involves persuading the people of West Virginia, who voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump in 2020, that Biden’s big spending climate bill can deliver jobs, rather than accelerate the closure of coal mines and pause plans for gas pipelines.
“No politician in West Virginia can win statewide office by saying that the climate is changing and we need to do something about it,” said Hoppy Kercheval, a longtime radio show host based in Morgantown. “That is a political non-starter.
“It’s framed as — well, if you believe the climate is changing, and we have to have green energy, then it’s bad for coal, it’s bad for natural gas, all the jobs associated with that.”
Manchin, who has yet to formally confirm he will run again, is widely considered to be the only Democrat who can win in the state. He faces a challenge from West Virginia’s hugely popular, billionaire coal-magnate Republican governor, Jim Justice, who has announced a Senate run.
Justice, who is rarely seen in public without his pet bulldog, Babydog, has called Manchin’s support of Biden’s climate legislation “a real, real screw-up”. Polling released last month found that two in three voters in West Virginia approve of Justice’s performance, making him one of the most popular governors in the country.
“People are worried the government is attacking the coal industry,” said Greg Thomas, a Republican political consultant who worked on Trump’s campaign in the state in 2020. “Here in West Virginia we love guns, we love babies and we love coal,” said Thomas. “Democrats hate guns, hate babies, and hate coal.”
Manchin’s office declined requests for an interview.
While there are no provisions in the Inflation Reduction Act that would directly harm to coal industry, the legislation explicitly supports clean energy alternatives. Democrats worry that voters in West Virginia are not acknowledging the benefits of the legislation, which has so far powered several large investments in the state.
Doug Skaff, a Democratic politician from West Virginia, lamented that voters were rejecting the green subsidies because they were passed under a Democratic president. “If the IRA was passed under Trump, the people of West Virginia would think it was the best,” said Skaff. “But because it was passed under Biden — they don’t like it.”
Kercheval suggested that increasing polarisation and simplification was making it difficult for the message that the IRA could bring in money and jobs to resonate with voters.
“We live in an environment where a lot of the politics is bumper sticker,” he said.
“So, the IRA, Biden — bad. Green energy stuff — bad. In a state that is deeply red, it’s easier to do that politically than what Manchin is trying to do, which is to say to people — ‘look at all the benefits that are here’.”
Faced with waning popularity and attacks from conservative Republicans, Manchin has increasingly sought to distance himself from the climate and green energy portions of IRA, accusing the Biden administration of “manipulating the law to push their radical climate agenda”.
Last month, he appeared on Fox News and threatened to vote to repeal the bill, accusing Biden of breaking a promise to him that the legislation was about “energy security”.
“We have the gas. We have the oil. We have the coal,” said Manchin. “We can do it better than anywhere else in the world.”
Meanwhile, Justice has boasted of his part in several projects that have landed in the state since Biden signed off on the subsidy package, including the arrival of a Form Energy battery plant in the historic steel town of Weirton, a $22mn battery manufacturing plant by Next Energy and a $500mn renewables-powered titanium melting plant by Precision Castparts Corp.
“Republicans like Jim Justice like to be critical of the Inflation Reduction Act but he’s the first to pose for a picture in front of a ribbon-cutting or groundbreaking on one of these new job sites created,” said Mike Pushkin, the chair of the Democratic party in West Virginia.
In Charleston, the state’s capital, 83-year-old Jerry Lewis, said he liked both Manchin and Justice.
“He’s a redneck hillbilly, and that makes it easy for everyone to like him,” he said of Justice. “But the Inflation Reduction Act — it’s a good thing. We have to get out of fossil fuels at some point.”