BECKLEY, W.Va. (AP) — Mitt Romney bashed President Obama in West Virginia coal country Tuesday to stir up support for three Republican hopefuls as the GOP seeks to win a U.S. Senate race that could help tip the Democratic chamber in the GOP's favor.
However, the support of the former Republican presidential nominee could end up being more valuable for two U.S. House candidates.
The Senate matchup already favors Republican U.S. Rep. Shelley Moore Capito against Democratic Secretary of State Natalie Tennant.
Capito's vacated House seat will be key, as Republicans look to tilt traditionally Democratic West Virginia further right, particularly while Obama remains unpopular and in office.
"You elect Democrats to go to Washington, they will have to do what Harry Reid and Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi tell them to do," Romney said Tuesday in Beckley. "And they fight coal. They're killing coal jobs."
Romney won all 55 West Virginia counties in 2012 against the president, whose energy policies are unwelcome in a state that proudly identifies with coal. The former Massachusetts governor insisted Tuesday he won't run for president again in 2016.
Republican Alex Mooney, a former Maryland lawmaker and GOP chairman who moved to West Virginia last year, faces former state Democratic Party Chairman Nick Casey for the seat that Capito is vacating. House Republicans are expected to expand their majority. A Casey win in a GOP district would be a major feat for his party.
Mooney campaigns on a fiery anti-Obama message. But the transplant from Maryland has faced charges of political opportunism similar to those that once dogged Democratic U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, who relocated from New York decades ago.
The criticisms also came from Mooney's own party. Before Mooney beat six primary competitors, West Virginia GOP communications consultant Rob Cornelius called Mooney a "total liar," ''total clown," ''traitor" and a "fraud" in various tweets.
"Primaries are an important test," Cornelius said Monday, adding that he now supports Mooney. "If conducted with zeal, they should create stronger nominees for the fall."
Mooney said he's proud to be a West Virginian by choice. The residency complaints worked themselves out in the primary, he said.
"Voters were more interested in the issues," Mooney said. "I think it's distraction that Nick Casey and the Democrats will continue to bring up."
Casey, a Charleston attorney, reflects the moderate Democratic stance that has prevailed in West Virginia for decades.
Casey, Tennant and Democratic U.S. Rep. Nick Rahall try to distance themselves from Obama, saying his proposal to limit carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants will hurt West Virginia's iconic fossil fuel industry.
Tennant has also called Romney "coal's public enemy #1," pointing back to his support of limiting airborne power plant pollution as Massachusetts governor.
Romney is again trying to help defeat Rahall, a 19-term political fixture. Romney campaigned in Charleston in 2006 for Rahall's failed GOP opponent and Capito. Rahall's toughest re-election yet pits him against state Sen. Evan Jenkins, a Democrat-turned-Republican. Beckley, where Tuesday's rally was held, is in Rahall's district.
Unions and other groups protested the event with an inflatable "fat cat" in a suit.
Romney is peaking as a popular campaign trail weapon. Since February, he has visited 14 states to help Republican candidates for governor, U.S. House and Senate. He headlined a private fundraiser at a Charleston home Tuesday before the Beckley event.
Rahall has proven a perennial ticket-splitter. His coalfield-centric district favored Romney by 32 percentage points, the Republican's biggest win across the state's three congressional seats.
In the 1st Congressional District, GOP Rep. David McKinley is expected to beat Democratic state Auditor Glen Gainer.