By Timothy Gardner and Grant Smith
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The top U.S. coal miners union has put a larger share of its campaign donations behind Democrats ahead of the Nov. 6 elections than in 2016, as dimming hopes for a coal industry revival led by President Donald Trump reinforce fears about the safety of worker pensions.
The United Mine Workers of America has donated nearly 84 percent of its money to Democratic candidates and committees in national races, according to a Reuters analysis of campaign finance data. That is a roughly 20-point jump from 2016, when Trump courted coal miners with promises of an industry comeback.
The UMWA, pumping more money into races this year, has spent $910,000 of its more than $1 million in total on donations to Democrats and advertising supporting them through mid-October, compared with $250,000 of $395,000 to Democrats through mid-October 2016.
The shift marks a setback for efforts by Trump and the Republican party to maintain control of Congress. He had won over many U.S. coal miners during the last election with promises to scrap Obama-era environmental regulations blamed for the industry’s demise.
While the Trump administration has rolled back some environmental protections in its first two years, the promise of a coal comeback has yet to be fulfilled.
A Reuters survey of utilities found that the administration’s replacement of Obama-era carbon regulations will not save U.S. coal-fired power plants from shutdown.
Ongoing closings of coal-fired plants have meanwhile pushed U.S. coal consumption by utilities this year to the lowest since 1983, according to the Energy Information Administration.
The UMWA said it is not intentionally favoring Democrats but rather donating to lawmakers who support miners’ pension funds, which have been undermined by coal company bankruptcies and which the Republican-led Congress has failed to backstop.
“We have one primary criteria for making contributions to any candidate of either party: Do they support our fight to preserve our retirees’ pensions? If the answer is yes, then we support that candidate,” said Phil Smith, the UMWA’s spokesman.
The UMWA’s support for Democrats sagged in 2016 when Trump focused his campaign on undoing Obama-era regulations limiting greenhouse gases, which he described as part of a “war on coal.”
Simon Haeder, a political scientist at West Virginia University, said the union’s donations this year marked a shift back to the union’s core labor values, and away from hopes for the promised rebound in coal country.
“The ‘war on coal’ narrative is basically over. Now the things that people are concerned about are health care and pensions … these are the overwhelming issues that dominate their lives,” he said.
Still, the UMWA’s support for Democrats remains below where it had been earlier in the decade. In 2014, the union gave 92 percent of its money to Democrats, while in 2012 it was 96 percent.
Trump’s 2020 campaign team did not immediately comment. The Republican National Committee did not comment.
DIFFERENT BREED OF DEMOCRAT
UMWA has boosted donations to sitting Democratic senators from industrial states who championed funding miners’ pensions -including Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Bob Casey of Pennsylvania and Joe Donnelly of Indiana, who is in a tight race with Republican Mike Braun.
But the union has also been favoring a different breed Democrat in many races – often military veterans who, in addition to supporting labor causes, can hold their own against Republicans that cast Democrats as anti-gun or weak on crime.
Conor Lamb, a Marine veteran, for example, won a special U.S. House race in Pennsylvania earlier this year against Republican Rick Saccone, aided in part by coal miner rallies and a UMWA endorsement.
The UMWA is also backing West Virginia congressional hopeful Richard Ojeda, a 24-year Army veteran who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Once seen as a long-shot candidate, Ojeda now only trails his Republican opponent, Carol Miller, by a few percentage points in a district Trump carried by about a 50-point margin in 2016.
Other Democratic veterans with UMWA support include Anthony Brown of Maryland, Chrissy Houlahan of Pennsylvania and Randy Bryce in the Wisconsin district of Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan, who is not seeking reelection.
Underscoring the point, the UMWA’s political action committee in July gave $75,000 to VoteVets, a progressive political action committee that supports veterans running for office, a 15-fold increase from its 2016 donation to the group.
“People who have been out in the field in the military understand the plight of people who work for a living in the coal mine,” said Jon Soltz, the chairman and co-founder of VoteVets.
Republicans who support miner pensions who received UMWA donations include Representatives David McKinley of West Virginia, and Mike Bost and Rodney Davis of Illinois.
(Reporting by Timothy Gardner in Washington and Grant Smith in New York; editing by Richard Valdmanis and Steve Orlofsky)