How the Democrats Lost Coal Country

coal, mining, West Virginia

Over the past few election cycles, it has become clear that Democratic politicians are increasingly endangered in coal country, losing races before they even begin due largely to the initial that follows their name.

(S&P Global) – Democratic candidates have faced uphill battles in presidential and mid-term elections in coal-producing parts of the country for some time, with much of the blame directed at the party’s environmental and regulatory approach to energy. The result of all of this has been a party that has steadily lost its political footing in coal states like Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia

In many cases, the issue of coal was used as a political weapon to quickly create a link between the Democratic challenger and the Obama administration. During the 2014 Kentucky Senate campaign, the administration’s coal policies proved so toxic for Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes that she dodged the question of whether she had even voted for the head of her own party on more than one occasion. Incumbent Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., won the race by about 15 points.

While the individual most often cited for the party’s decline in coal states like West Virginia and Kentucky is Barack Obama and the environmental policies introduced during his administration, others trace the party’s loss of favor in coal country to earlier presidents.

“The trouble for the Democratic brand in ‘Coal Country,’ which is a term mainly associated with Appalachia, truly began in 2000,” said Geoffrey Skelley, associate editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball.

To be sure, Democrats did not always face such an uphill battle in parts of Appalachia. John F. Kennedy kicked off his national campaign in West Virginia, interviewing miners about the concerns they had about jobs and demand for coal.

Years later, Jimmy Carter would promote coal use for electricity in the same speech calling for energy conservation and less use of traditional hydro-carbons.

However, the party’s coal country standing would begin to truly slip as the nation’s next Democratic president, Bill Clinton, concluded his administration.

“The trouble for the Democratic brand in ‘Coal Country,’ which is a term mainly associated with Appalachia, truly began in 2000,” said Geoffrey Skelley, associate editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, an elections analysis website run by the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “After Bill Clinton won 47% of Appalachian counties in his 1996 re-election bid, including a majority of the vote in West Virginia, Al Gore won only 18% of Appalachian counties.”

According to former Peabody Energy Corp. executive Fred Palmer, the party’s situation was not helped in the region by Gore’s heavy focus on environmental issues and global warming.

Skelley noted that support for Democrats has continued to fall, and while Obama is most often cited as the reason for the loss of support, “it was already suffering at the start of the 2000s.”

For some, the Democratic Party’s decline in coal-producing regions of the country is less about coal specifically and more about a broader shift in focus away from working class, blue-collar voters who elected Democrats to office for decades in rural America, especially Appalachia.

“As they shifted their electoral focus to urban and suburban voters, their policies changed accordingly, including a stronger focus on environmental issues,” United Mine Workers of America spokesman Phil Smith said. “But instead of balancing environmental progress with ways to maintain continued job growth in rural America, the Democrats’ political calculation was that they could achieve one at the expense of the other and still win presidential elections.”

Still, it is difficult to downplay the impact of the Obama administration’s environmental regulations as a political tool in coal community elections.

Daniel Lowry, spokesman for the Kentucky Democratic Party, said that Republicans in the state have relied on coal issues in recent elections, even in cases where districts were home to few to any actual mining jobs.

In addition to the Grimes loss in 2014, Lowry cited the 2012 race that allowed Republican Rep. Andy Barr to unseat incumbent Democrat Ben Chandler with a campaign heavy on coal issues despite running in a district with no actual mines.

More recently, comments made by Hillary Clinton in Ohio earlier this year about the future of coal in the U.S. were seized on by coal advocates and Republican candidate, Donald Trump, as a battle cry against the Democrat and her plans for the region.

“We know that was going to be the strategy,” Lowry said. “To paint Hillary Clinton as part of this so-called ‘war on coal.'”

Democrats have fared a little better in coal-producing regions in the West on the federal level, including in Montana. However, in Wyoming, the country’s largest producer of coal, Republicans have held the House and Senate seats since the late 1970s.


This article was originally published here on S&P Global.

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