BECKLEY (AP) - West Virginia Secretary of State Natalie Tennant kicked off her bid for the U.S. Senate on Tuesday by distancing herself from the Obama administration's policies on coal, hoping to blunt one of the Republican Party's main lines of attack in a state that's heavily dependent on the coal industry.
The Democrat announced her candidacy in front of about 100 supporters at the Tamarack Conference Center in Beckley, which she called the center of coal country. She's seeking the seat of retiring Democratic U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, who won five terms by comfortable margins and endorsed her on Tuesday. But the state has been growing slightly more Republican in recent years and the GOP plans to make Democrats' policies on energy a central issue in their efforts to take the seat.
"Let me make this clear right here, right now - I disagree with the Obama administration's policies on coal. I will fight any Republican or any Democrat, including President Barack Obama, who tries to kill our energy jobs whether they are coal, natural gas, wind or water," Tennant said in prepared remarks she planned to read at similar events in Charleston and Morgantown later in the day.
Tennant said she would push for a partnership where the government promotes coal exports through "sensible" trade policies, renew federal investment in locks and dams at ports that transport coal and advocate for a "new covenant" where the coal industry "keeps its promise for health care benefits and pensions to its miners."
Republican U.S. Rep. Shelley Moore Capito announced last fall that she would run, too, and became a favorite of the GOP establishment. However, some conservatives complained about her votes for financial industry bailouts, and former state Sen. Patrick McGeehan has announced plans to challenge her.
If Tennant and Capito win their party primaries next spring, West Virginia could elect a woman senator for the first time. Tennant walked onto a stage in a conference room surrounded by supporters as country music singer Shania Twain's song, "Man! I feel like a woman," played overhead.
In a roughly 15-minute speech, Tennant didn't make any references to the potential gender barrier that she may break. Instead, she spoke about her upbringing in the state, said she would work to make college more affordable and combat drug abuse. She also took several shots at her likely Republican rival.
Among other things, Tennant said Capito is part of the reason Congress is gridlocked and said that her support for turning Medicare into a voucher program would limit medical care for senior citizens.
"There's no way around it, Congresswoman Capito has been part of the problem in a broken Congress for the last 13 years," Tennant said.
"We can't have someone who always stands in our way and says no to ideas, says no to progress and says no to the people of this state, offering nothing in return."
The Republican rebuttal came in a series of statements that were released before Tennant had even finished speaking. Capito's campaign manager issued a statement linking Tennant to national Democrats, similar to statements issued by the state party and National Republican Senatorial Committee.
"Harry Reid and the liberal D.C. Democrats handpicked Natlie Tennant to be their nominee. It is no wonder they picked West Virginia's biggest supporter of Obamacare, the War on Coal and President Obama's entire extreme agenda," Chris Hansen said in a statement.
Speaking with reporters following her announcement, Tennant made an appeal to coal miners in saying that while there are parts of the Affordable Care Act that need to be fixed, others should be kept.
"We're here in Beckley, in the heart of coal country. When we talk about coal miners who have worked in these coal mines and made the economy of West Virginia, they get their black lung benefits because of the affordable care act," she said.
"There are many regulations to go through and that's what I'm good at. I'm good at editing. I'm good at going through programs and seeing what works and what doesn't work."
Tennant is a former TV reporter and anchor currently serving her second, four-year term as the state's top elections official.
She campaigned on her efforts to bring the office's business filing and licensing services online.
Tennant has a bachelor's degree in journalism from West Virginia University, where she also served as the school's first female Mountaineer mascot. She also has a master's degree in corporate and organizational communication
Capito would be leaving a U.S. House controlled by her party and where she has built seniority. Among her assignments, Capito chairs a House Financial Services subcommittee that oversees banks and consumer credit.
Capito was in the West Virginia House of Delegates when she first ran for Congress in 2000. Rockefeller has served five terms, winning each one by a comfortable margin. But his retirement at age 75 puts a seat held by Democrats since 1958 in jeopardy. Capito is popular in her home state and won a seventh term in the House last fall with about 70 percent of her district's vote.
While Democrats still outnumber Republicans by a 2-to-1 margin in voter registration, West Virginians are proven ticket-splitters who have gone for Republicans in the last several presidential elections.