News / USA

In Coal Country, Democrat Grimes Fights Party Label

Democratic Senate challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes, left, speaks with former Presidet Bill Clinton at a fundraiser, Galt House Hotel, Louisville, Kentucky, Feb. 25, 2014.
Democratic Senate challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes, left, speaks with former Presidet Bill Clinton at a fundraiser, Galt House Hotel, Louisville, Kentucky, Feb. 25, 2014.
At campaign stops in the coal-rich mountains of eastern Kentucky, Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes likes to say she embodies the words that frighten her Republican Senate opponent Mitch McConnell the most: “pro-coal Democrat.”

For Grimes and other coal country Democrats, embracing that label is more than a political convenience. It's vital for political survival.

In one of the year's top Senate races, McConnell and his Republican allies have poured millions into Kentucky to link Grimes to President Barack Obama and what they call his “war on coal,” betting that voters who blame Obama for a devastating wave of mine closures and job losses will not put a fellow Democrat in the Senate.

Whether Grimes can convince them she is a different breed of Democrat, one who can stand up to Obama and the party's green lobby and fight environmental regulations, will play a big role in her November battle with McConnell and help determine which party controls the U.S. Senate.

The fight in Kentucky echoes an argument playing out in Senate races in other conservative states such as Louisiana and Alaska, where Republicans claim their Democratic opponents will be a rubber-stamp for an Obama agenda that imposes big-government solutions on every problem.

That argument will be in the spotlight next week, when the administration unveils new regulations limiting carbon emissions for existing power plants that already have the coal industry and its political allies gearing up for battle.

“I don't agree with the president's war on coal, I think it's wrong for Kentucky,” Grimes said after a primary victory last week that set up her election fight against McConnell, the Senate Republican leader.

“I will fight to make sure that coal has a long-term place in our national energy policy,” she said. “I won't answer to the president.”

Obama, who lost Kentucky by 22 percentage points in the 2012 election, has not visited Kentucky to support Grimes, and national Democratic groups so far have spent modestly on ads targeting McConnell.

Polls show Grimes and McConnell enter the general election campaign in a dead heat, giving Democrats hope of stealing a seat from Republicans in a year when they are desperately trying to hang on to their six-seat Senate majority.

During her campaign, Grimes, currently Kentucky secretary of state, has promised to create jobs, fight for equal pay for women and for a higher minimum wage.

But the debate over coal has become one of the most prominent issues in Kentucky, which generates more than 90 percent of its power from coal and ranks third among states in U.S. coal production behind Wyoming and West Virginia.

The industry has been in decline for decades as technological improvements and low prices for coal's natural competitor, natural gas, have undermined jobs.

The state still prides itself on its coal history and  voters in Appalachia blame the Obama administration's regulatory rules and its alliance with environmental groups dedicated to phasing out fossil fuels for coal's woes.

'Very leery'

That puts more pressure on coal-friendly Democrats like Grimes — along with Senate candidate Natalie Tennant and U.S. Representative Nick Rahall, both of West Virginia, who also have criticized Obama's coal agenda — to prove the sincerity of their break with the national party.

“It makes someone like me very, very leery of Grimes,” said Tim Birman of Harlan, a 38-year-old single father who lost his coal mining job years ago and now drives to construction jobs in a nearby county.

“Obama and the Democrats have done so much to hurt the coal industry, it makes me question how trustworthy she can be.”

On a recent bus tour through eastern Kentucky's battered coal country, Grimes repeatedly promised to fight the new environmental regulations and help attract new businesses to the counties hit hardest by coal's plight. She questioned how much McConnell had done to help.

“We have lost thousands of good coal jobs on his watch, not mine. We have seen overburdensome regulations come into effect on his watch, not mine,” she told about 50 voters at a Harlan community center. The scariest thing to McConnell, she said, was a “pro-coal Democrat.”

Grimes said she would push for tax incentives to develop clean coal technology and work with other pro-coal Senate Democrats like West Virginia's Joe Manchin to develop a comprehensive energy policy with room for coal.

McConnell, she said, has been more interested in partisan politics during his 30 years in the Senate than in working on behalf of coal interests.

“The people of Kentucky know who I am. They have spent millions on these false, negative ads about me and it has not made a difference,” Grimes said on her bus after a day of rolling up and down mountainous roads for a series of coal-country rallies.

In response, McConnell rarely passes up the chance to utter the phrase “war on coal” and link Grimes to Obama and Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid, whose 2008 comment that “coal makes us sick” has made him deeply unpopular in Kentucky.

“My opponent is in this race because Barack Obama and Harry Reid want her in this race,” McConnell said after beating a Tea Party-backed businessman in the Republican primary.

The coal industry is still celebrated proudly in Kentucky. The most popular bumper sticker on trucks in Harlan County is still “If You Don't Like Coal, Don't Use Electricity,” but the skeletons of abandoned mine operations and the high unemployment rates — nearly 17 percent in Harlan in March — are a testament to the industry's decline.

Coal mines and preparation plants in eastern Kentucky laid off another 2,232 employees in 2013, leaving employment in the region's coalfields at 7,332 — barely half of what it was in the summer of 2011, a recent state government report said.

'Never be like it was'

“I have come to accept the fact that the coal industry will never be like it was,” said George Noe, 43, who works the night shift at one of a handful of operating mines in Harlan County, which decades ago had more than 180 thriving coal operations.

“I would just like to hear somebody say they are going to work with us to keep what's left of the industry, and find a way to keep at least a few jobs down here,” said Noe, who is undecided in the Senate race.

Some leaders of the state's coal industry are wary of Grimes, who does not have as much history with them as McConnell.

“She hasn't been very specific about how she can help us on coal,” said Bill Bissett, president of the Kentucky Coal Association, which does not make political endorsements.

Two independent groups backing McConnell, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce business group and a Super PAC run by a former adviser to President George W. Bush, already have spent more than $2.8 million primarily on ads hitting Grimes on coal, and the race is expected to be among the country's most costly.

Stephen Voss, a political scientist at the University of Kentucky, said Grimes could find her candidacy “a hard sell” with voters as long as the Senate race was dominated by the “war on coal” debate.

“No matter what she believes and how she is going to vote, she is still going to put that party that backs those anti-coal policies in charge of the Senate,” Voss said.

You May Like

Video Americans, Tourists, Reflect on Meaning of Thanksgiving

VOA garnered opinions from several people soon after November 13 Paris attacks, which colored many of their thoughts

Video Thais Send Security Concerns Down the River

In northern Thailand, the annual tradition of constructing floating baskets to carry away the year’s bad spirits highlights the Loy Krathong festival

Video Tree Houses - A Branch of American Dream

Workshops aimed at teaching people how to build tree houses have become widely popular in America in recent years

This forum has been closed.
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Belgium-Germany Border Remains Porous, Even As Manhunt For Paris Attacker Continuesi
Ayesha Tanzeem
November 25, 2015 10:46 PM
One of the suspected gunmen in the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, evaded law enforcement, made his way to Belgium, and is now believed to have fled to Germany. VOA correspondent Ayesha Tanzeem makes the journey across the border from Belgium into Germany to see how porous the borders really are.

Video Belgium-Germany Border Remains Porous, Even As Manhunt For Paris Attacker Continues

One of the suspected gunmen in the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, evaded law enforcement, made his way to Belgium, and is now believed to have fled to Germany. VOA correspondent Ayesha Tanzeem makes the journey across the border from Belgium into Germany to see how porous the borders really are.

Video Islamic State Unfazed by Losses in Iraq, Syria

Progress in the U.S.-led effort to beat Islamic State on its home turf in Iraq and Syria has led some to speculate the terror group may be growing desperate. But counterterror officials say that is not the case, and warn the recent spate of terror attacks is merely part of the group’s evolution. VOA National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more.

Video Taiwan Looks for Role in South China Sea Dispute

The Taiwanese government is one of several that claims territory in the hotly contested South China Sea, but Taipei has long been sidelined in the dispute, overshadowed by China. Now, as the Philippines challenges Beijing’s claims in an international court at The Hague, Taipei is looking to publicly assert its claims. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.

Video Syrian Refugees in US Express Concern for Those Left Behind

Syrian immigrants in the United States are concerned about the negative tide of public opinion and the politicians who want to block a U.S. plan to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees. Zlatica Hoke reports many Americans are fighting to dispel suspicions linking refugees to terrorists.

Video After Paris Attacks, France Steps Up Fight Against IS

The November 13 Paris attacks have drawn increased attention to Syria, where many of the suspected perpetrators are said to have received training. French President Francois Hollande is working to build a broad international coalition to defeat Islamic State in Syria and in Iraq. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video US, Cambodian Navies Pair Up in Gulf of Thailand

The U.S. Navy has deployed one of its newest and most advanced ships to Cambodia to conduct joint training drills in the Gulf of Thailand. Riding hull-to-hull with Cambodian ships, the seamen of the USS Fort Worth are executing joint-training drills that will help build relations in Southeast Asia. David Boyle reports for VOA from Preah Sihanouk province.

Video Americans Sharpen Focus on Terrorism

Washington will be quieter than usual this week due to the Thanksgiving holiday, even as Americans across the nation register heightened concerns over possible terrorist threats. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports new polling data from ABC News and the Washington Post newspaper show an electorate increasingly focused on security issues after the deadly Islamic State attacks in Paris.

Video World Leaders Head to Paris for Climate Deal

Heads of state from nearly 80 countries are heading to Paris (November 30-December 11) to craft a global climate change agreement. The new accord will replace the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change that expired in 2012.

Video Uncertain Future for Syrian Refugee Resettlement in Illinois

For the trickle of Syrian refugees finding new homes in the Midwest city of Chicago, the call to end resettlement in many U.S. states is adding another dimension to their long journey fleeing war. Organizations working to help them integrate say the backlash since the Paris attacks is both harming and helping their efforts to provide refugees sanctuary. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

Video Creating Physical Virtual Reality With Tiny Drones

As many computer gamers know, virtual reality is a three-dimensional picture, projected inside special googles. It can fool your brain into thinking the computer world is the real world. But If you try to touch it, it’s not there. Now Canadian researchers say it may be possible to create a physical virtual reality using tiny drones. VOA’s George Putic reports.

Video New American Indian Village Takes Visitors Back in Time

There is precious little opportunity to experience what life was like in the United States before its colonization by European settlers. Now, an American Indian village built in a park outside Washington is taking visitors back in time to experience the way of life of America's indigenous people. Carol Pearson narrates this report from VOA's June Soh.

Video Even With Hometown Liberated, Yazidi Refugees Fear Return

While the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar has been liberated from Islamic State forces, it's not clear whether Yazidi residents who fled the militants will now return home. VOA’s Mahmut Bozarslan talked with Yazidis, a religious and ethnic minority, at a Turkish refugee camp in Diyarbakır. Robert Raffaele narrates his report.

Video Nairobi Tailors Make Pope Francis’ Vestments

To ensure the pope is properly attired during his visit, the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops asked the Dolly Craft Sewing Project in the Nairobi slum of Kangemi to make the pope's vestments, the garments he will wear during the various ceremonies. Jill Craig reports.

Video Cross-Border Terrorism Puts Europe’s Passport-Free Travel in Doubt

The fallout from the Islamic State terror attacks in Paris has put the future of Europe’s passport-free travel area, known as the "Schengen Zone," in doubt. Several of the perpetrators were known to intelligence agencies, but were not intercepted. Henry Ridgwell reports from London European ministers are to hold an emergency meeting Friday in Brussels to look at ways of improving security.

Video El Niño Brings Unexpected Fish From Mexico to California

Fish in an unexpected spectrum of sizes, shapes and colors are moving north, through El Niño's warm currents from Mexican waters to the Pacific Ocean off California’s coast. El Nino is the periodic warming of the eastern and central Pacific Ocean. As Faiza Elmasry tells us, this phenomenon thrills scientists and gives anglers the chance of a once-in-a-lifetime big catch. Faith Lapidus narrates.

Video Terrorism in Many Forms Continues to Plague Africa

While the world's attention is on Paris in the wake of Friday night's deadly attacks, terrorism from various sides remains a looming threat in many African countries. Nigerian cities have been targeted this week by attacks many believe were staged by the violent Islamist group Boko Haram. In addition, residents in many regions are forced to flee their homes as they are terrorized by armed militias. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video Study: Underage Marriage Rate Higher for Females in Pakistan

While attitudes about the societal role of females in Pakistan are evolving, research by child advocacy group Plan International suggests that underage marriage of girls remains a particularly big issue in the country. VOA’s Ayesha Tanzeem reports how such marriages leads to further social problems.

VOA Blogs