In the heart of Kentucky’s coal country, where sons followed fathers and grandfathers into the mines, support for Democrats ran as deep as the coal seams that powered the region’s economy. But as the Appalachian coal sector’s future has dimmed, so has political loyalty.
The generational devotion to the party of Franklin Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy and Bill Clinton is still on display in the Pike County courthouse. Glass cases in the lobby showcase buttons, bumper stickers, signs and other memorabilia recounting Democratic victories. A space set aside for Republicans is empty.
But the political landscape is shifting amid a steep downturn in the coal business in the hills of eastern Kentucky.
That chain of support for Democrats in a swath of Appalachian counties — dating back at least to the New Deal — has been broken in the past two statewide elections as voters switched their support to Republican candidates for U.S. Senate and governor.
There is visceral disgust with President Barack Obama, and his environmental policies have been widely denounced by locals as anti-coal.
Republicans stirred the backlash, denouncing Obama for waging a “war on coal” through stepped-up regulation of coal-fired power plants. Now the GOP is tapping into the discontent to win coal counties that once seemed out of reach.
Kentucky Democrats are left with a diminished map from which to build winning statewide coalitions.
“I think we’ve done a lot to build the Republican Party in Kentucky, but on this one I give the credit to the president of the United States,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. “This is a transformative event.”
The recent trend started in the 2010 Senate race, when Republican Rand Paul nearly ran even with Democrat Jack Conway in a large swath of eastern Kentucky long controlled mostly by Democrats. By 2014, McConnell dominated the region. The state’s pre-eminent Republican won several Appalachian counties for his first time ever in securing a sixth U.S. Senate term. McConnell successfully tied his Democratic challenger, Alison Lundergan Grimes, to Obama.
That newfound GOP momentum continued Tuesday, when Republican Matt Bevin swept most of the eastern coalfields, including Pike County, in winning Kentucky’s governorship. On the down ballot, Republicans picked up the auditor’s and treasurer’s offices as the GOP moved closer to consolidating political power in state government after years of dominating federal elections.
In 2007, the year before Obama was elected president, support for the state’s Democratic gubernatorial candidate was rock solid. Steve Beshear outpolled Republican incumbent Ernie Fletcher by a 2-to-1 margin in that area of eastern Kentucky. Four years later, Beshear amassed a 20,000-vote advantage over GOP challenger David Williams in winning his second and final term.
Those days now seem like a different era.
The GOP’s message resonated with voters such as George Blackburn, who spent 42 years working in the coalfields. Blackburn, whose family backed Democrats for generations, supported McConnell and Bevin. It was a vote against Obama, he said.
“He’s taken our economy away completely,” Blackburn said this week. “He just all at once put the EPA on us so hard that we can’t mine coal. It’s on his shirt tail, I’d say, the Democrats got beat this time.”
Former Gov. Paul Patton, a Democrat from Pikeville, said Republicans successfully framed the issue to blame Obama, which trickled down to other Democrats. “You don’t have to be fair in politics,” Patton said, noting that the story of coal’s downturn goes deeper than government regulations.
“We’ve mined the coal for 115 years,” said Patton, who spent years as a coal operator. “We’ve mined the good coal. Our coal is very expensive to mine. There is cheaper coal coming in from the Midwest and from the West. There is natural gas that is absolutely cheaper than coal.”
The downturn has been traumatic for people in the region, he said, and “it’s natural to blame the person” that Republican groups have spent millions of dollars “to pin the blame on.”
Kentucky coal production dropped by 3.6 percent in 2014 to 77.4 million tons, the lowest level since 1962, according to state statistics.
In eastern Kentucky, coal output fell by nearly 5 percent to 37.5 million tons last year, the lowest haul since 1961. Eastern Kentucky production is down by 71.4 percent since peak production of 131 million tons in 1990.
Mining jobs were nearly cut in half in less than a decade, from 14,373 in 2008 to 7,242 in 2014 in the eastern Kentucky coalfields, according to industry statistics.
The repercussions are felt beyond the mines, hurting businesses that supply equipment to extract and process coal. Restaurants, car dealerships and other stores have taken hits. City and county governments are struggling to find revenue to keep up with demand for services.
Conway, who lost the governor’s race to Bevin, recognized what was happening. He stood alongside coal miners in a TV ad and bragged that as state attorney general he sued to block Obama’s coal plant regulations and promoted tax incentives to boost coal production. But there was little he could do.
“We have to get beyond the Obama administration,” Patton said. “There’s nothing we can do to overcome that image.”
However, the coal industry’s struggle won’t necessarily end with the election of a Republican president, he said.
It will be up to the GOP to help stimulate coal production if Republicans want to keep the coal-producing counties, said Will T. Scott, a former state Supreme Court justice who lost the gubernatorial primary to Bevin.
“If the Republican Party doesn’t step in and help … keep our miners’ dignity and keep us working, they’ll swing back,” he said.
Associated Press writer Claire Galofaro in Louisville, Kentucky, contributed to this story.
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