FRANKFORT — You don’t need a political science degree to know coal will be an issue in the 2014 U.S. Senate race in Kentucky.
Republicans and their coal industry allies successfully burned Democratic Congressman Ben Chandler with a controversial vote he cast on climate legislation on their way to electing Republican Andy Barr to Chandler’s Sixth District seat in 2012.
Cries of a “war on coal” echo from the hollows of eastern Kentucky and the hallways of Frankfort.
Incumbent Republican U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell is already mining the issue in television ads, using some of them to bolster his image as Barack Obama’s nemesis, some to tar the image of likely Democratic opponent Alison Lundergan Grimes.
(Owensboro contractor Ed Marksberry, Louisville musical promoter Bennie Smith and University of Louisville professor Greg Leichty are also seeking the Democratic nomination, but Grimes, 34, the first-term secretary of state, is the favorite.)
But some coalfield Democrats, who profess no fealty to Obama and frequently seem defensive about their national party, are saying the issue won’t doom Grimes’ candidacy.
“She’ll do very well back home in my opinion,” said Pike County state Rep. Keith Hall, D-Phelps.
He said McConnell’s recent trip to the coalfields of southeastern Kentucky received a warm reception and “he did a very good job” of defending coal.
“But she’ll take the right positions on coal, and she’ll have Bill Clinton on her side,” Hall said. “Bill Clinton walks on water down there.”
Rep. Rocky Adkins, D-Sandy Hook, like Hall, is an passionate defender of coal who complains about national environmental policies and what he considers an all-out attack on the coal industry. But Adkins said he plans to campaign and raise money for Grimes if she is the Democratic nominee as he expects her to be.
“Alison Grimes is an excellent candidate, and she’ll be well-funded and highly organized,” Adkins said. “In eastern Kentucky she’ll run well. Her campaign will be focused on grassroots issues important to Kentucky.”
McConnell’s campaign manager Jesse Benton scoffed at the idea Grimes can separate herself in Kentucky voters’ minds from Obama and his policies.
“Partisan Democrats can try to ignore reality, but the bottom line is stark: Grimes endorsed the national Democrat party platform which includes more onerous EPA regulations, a national carbon tax and additional anti-coal measures to combat so-called climate change,” Benton said. “She is carrying President Obama’s banner, whose administration just declared a war on coal. When you contrast that with Mitch’s steadfast support for Kentucky coal and tremendous leadership fighting for coal families, we are confident we will earn overwhelming support from that community.”
Grimes spokesman Jonathan Hurst said Republican shouldn’t be so sure.
“Alison will stand up and always put Kentucky families first,” Hurst said. “One of her first endorsements when she ran for Secretary of State came from the United Mine Workers, and she got strong support from eastern and western Kentucky in both the primary and general elections.”
Maybe so, but he coal industry will be watching, according to Bill Bissett, president of the Kentucky Coal Association.
Bissett said the association works with both Democrats and Republicans in Kentucky and does not endorse in political races. But the industry and people who depend on it for a living will be paying close attention.
“What she says and does about coal will be watched very carefully in the coal industry,” Bissett said. “They’ll be watching for any connection to the president or anyone who funds the president or even (Senate Majority Leader) Harry Reid who said ‘coal makes people sick.’ ”
Some Democrats acknowledge it’s tough in Kentucky for a candidate in Obama’s party.
Coal advocate and state Rep. Jim Gooch, D-Providence, said McConnell is unpopular in his district, but Obama is even more unpopular.
Rep. John Short, D-Hindman, knows how important the coal issue is, especially in his southeastern Kentucky home region, but thinks Grimes can manage to blunt Republican attacks on the issue.
“If she gets away from Obama and makes sure everybody knows she’s for coal, I think she’ll do well,” Short said.
Grimes continues to organize her campaign after announcing two weeks ago she’s running, and she hasn’t yet issued any specific statements on issues, including coal. But supporters expect her to try to distinguish her position from Obama policies early.
She previewed part of her strategy during her announcement.
“Regardless of the vote issued in this race, we cannot change who our president is,” Grimes said. “But we can change who we have in Washington representing Kentucky.”
She also is using a Twitter hash tag of “#AlisonForKy” signaling she wants to focus the race on Kentucky issues rather than national ones. At the Wendell Ford Dinner last month, Grimes criticized McConnell and recalled a statement from Ford himself – that he was more interested in Kentucky issues than in national ones when he was U.S. Senator.
Rep. Ken Church, a Republican from Monticello, said it won’t work.
“I think next year will be a tough year for Democrats,” Upchurch said. “She got up and voted for Obama at the (Democratic National) convention.”