The endorsement by the United Mine Workers of America's National Council of Coal Miners PAC came as a political blow to Strickland. The Democrat is a former governor and congressman native to eastern Ohio whose strong relationships with labor have helped him win elections. COMPAC backed both Strickland's gubernatorial campaigns in 2006 and 2010.
Strickland is tied to presidential contender Hillary Clinton, who alienated coal miners in March when she said "we're going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business." Clinton later said she misspoke, but the comment has drawn fire in mining communities in Ohio, West Virginia and Kentucky.
In their letter to Portman, COMPAC leaders said they appreciated Portman's support of "both active and retired coal miners and their families, especially in such difficult times as the coal industry is experiencing today."
Losing support in southern and eastern Ohio could damage Strickland's chances against Portman. The two have been roughly tied in polls in a race Democrats see as one of their best chances nationally at gaining a Senate seat. The contest is drawing millions of dollars in mostly negative ad spending by outside groups.
Strickland’s campaign released statements Thursday from local leaders in Appalachia touting his roots there and history of supporting area mineworkers. The statements portrayed the PAC as a Washington organization out of touch with rural Ohio.
Athens County Commissioner Charlie Adkins, for example, said Strickland has fought for the people in eastern Ohio, including mine workers.
“They’ve had an uphill battle — and Ted has been with them all the way,” he said. “We all know there’s a lot of game playing in Washington, but in southeast Ohio, we know who’s been on our side.”
In a statement, Portman criticized Strickland for touting his ties to southeast Ohio despite "a record of turning his back on Coal Country."
"Even though coal is a proven source of relatively inexpensive energy that supports thousands of jobs across Ohio, and even though Ohio relies on coal for approximately 70 percent of our electricity, Ted worked on behalf of a liberal special interest group in Washington that is dedicated to ending coal jobs," Portman said.
After failing to win re-election as governor in 2010, Strickland worked for a time as head of the liberal Center for American Progress’s nonprofit, CAP Action. The group fights climate change with support for clean energy programs.
Strickland's campaign criticized Portman for voting against a bill that included funding for mine safety and for supporting the repeal of legislation that expanded access to black lung benefits for miners and their families.