By Ronnie Ellis / CNHI News Service
Republican U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell thinks he has Democratic opponent Alison Lundergan Grimes between a rock of coal and a hard place in this year’s Kentucky Senate race.
But the first term state Secretary of State who is trying to unseat the five-term Republican isn’t the only one feeling the pinch. Democrats who want to support coal and Grimes are squirming; so are some who see coal as a threat but don’t see any difference on the issue between the two candidates.
Grimes tries hard not to be outdone in her support of the coal industry, but she’s hampered by the image of national Democrats like Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and President Barack Obama. McConnell keeps reminding audiences that Reid once said “coal makes us sick” and claims Obama has declared a war on coal.
Grimes’ task is to persuade voters in the eastern and western parts of the state where coal is king that she will fight for coal jobs more effectively than McConnell. Grimes easily won the coal-producing counties in the primary but her margins were smaller than her statewide margins. Conversely, McConnell ran better in those counties than he did statewide.
Democratic Speaker of the House Greg Stumbo is a Grimes ally from Prestonsburg in the heart of coal country. He’s an ardent coal supporter and an ally of the Kentucky Coal Association which doesn’t openly endorse candidates but has been clear its membership is watching skeptically as Grimes raises money from Democratic groups which aren’t considered friendly to coal.
But Stumbo won’t pressure the KCA to stay neutral — “No, I’m going to be working with those folks in the future.”
But Stumbo said KCA membership is made up primarily of management, “the guys at the top. But when I talk to the people who’ve lost their jobs about how little McConnell has done for them, I see them shake their heads (in agreement).”
Bill Bissett, KCA president, acknowledges Stumbo’s loyalty to coal, but he says it’s still difficult for Kentucky Democrats to escape the shadow of Obama’s environmental policies. Bissett even went so far as to suggest “this president is willing to sacrifice elected Democrats to get his program enacted.”
Like Stumbo, House Majority Leader Rocky Adkins, D-Morehead, supports Grimes and is no fan of Obama’s. He may be the coal industry’s staunchest ally in the Kentucky General Assembly.
Adkins says Grimes “has done a good job separating her positions from those of the president” and many in the coal fields “feel more and more comfortable as they listen to her speeches.” Adkins is trying to persuade KCA members that Grimes is on their side. He says the feedback “has been positive.”
Bissett said he doesn’t know of any members so far getting behind Grimes. Several are supporting McConnell, he said.
Even in largely pro-coal Kentucky, there’s another side to the debate.
Pat Banks, a member of Kentucky Riverkeeper who lives on a ridge overlooking the Kentucky River in northern Madison County, is a Kentucky Democrat who agrees with Harry Reid.
“Coal does make us sick,” she said.
Banks is a plaintiff in suits against the state and three coal companies which allegedly violated the Clean Water Act by dumping unpermitted levels of pollutants into Kentucky streams.
Banks is disappointed in Grimes’ unqualified support of the coal industry. She said Grimes is likely to vote in Congress the same way she talks about coal in Kentucky.
But Banks said she will vote for Grimes anyway, because “having a Democrat take Mitch’s place would be really good for a lot of other (non-coal) issues.”
Carl Shoupe of Benham is a retired coal miner and former organizer for United Mine Workers who opposes surface mining, especially mountaintop removal. He’s not sure if he’ll even vote in this year’s Senate race because he sees no difference between McConnell and Grimes on coal and the environment.
He said neither candidate talks about the more important issue –what comes after coal. Shoupe says cheap natural gas and thinner, more difficult to reach coal seams in eastern Kentucky, rather than environmental policies, are killing jobs in the eastern coal field and those jobs aren’t coming back.
“Grimes is going to have to get off this coal thing and get behind alternatives like the SOAR initiative,” Shoupe said. (SOAR is a bipartisan effort pushed by Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear and Republican U.S. Congressman Hal Rogers to diversify the region’s economy.)
“The coal industry used us for a hundred years and now it’s gone they’ve left us with an empty bucket,” Shoupe said, and neither Grimes nor McConnell is addressing the need for non-coal jobs in the region.
RONNIE ELLIS writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow CNHI News Service stories on Twitter at www.twitter.com/cnhifrankfort.