Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Coal is a tricky subject to tackle for candidates in states where the industry is in decline

As political season begins to heat up—advertisements for November elections are already appearing on local television—and candidates begin pushing their stance while attacking their opponents, in some states where coal is king, or at least it used to be, the issue is a sensitive one that could sway voters one way or the other. And saying the wrong thing about coal could be political suicide in states like Kentucky, where even in areas that have never mined coal voters are strong supporters of the practice.

The heated race in Kentucky between Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell and Democratic challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes, "has thrust the subject back to the forefront," Erica Peterson reports for of WFPL in Louisville. Stephen Voss, a political science professor at the University of Kentucky, told Peterson, “Coal is sitting like the 800-pound gorilla on the U.S. Senate race right now."

Voss "said this is partly because of the 2012 Congressional race in Kentucky’s sixth district," Peterson writes. "That’s when now-Congressman Andy Barr defeated incumbent Ben Chandler, in part by calling in question Chandler’s support of coal. And this was in a district without any coal mines." Voss told her, “And so it showed that the coal issue has a resonance, it has a potential with a lot of voters who are not coal miners. This isn’t just about the coal miner vote.”

At issue is "also about the effects of cheap coal-fired electricity, like manufacturing jobs," Peterson writes. "In a state with less than 12,000 actual coal miners left, it’s cultural." Dee Davis, president of the Center for Rural Strategies, told Peterson, “There are a lot more former miners than miners. There are a lot more coal miner’s daughters than people who get up and go to work every morning mining coal.”

Even though coal mining has been rapidly declining in Eastern Kentucky "it’s still risky for a politician to express any lukewarm feelings about the industry’s future. Or, as Davis put it: 'No politician wants to be first to say the emperor has no clothes. Nor does he want to be the last.'”

That's the case in the state's 2015 race for governor, where current candidate and Agriculture Commissioner has asked for support from coal backers while backing away from statements from last year when he said, “A lot of leaders in Eastern Kentucky keep talking about ‘coal is the answer and there is a war on coal,’ I’m a friend of coal. I support the coal industry. But the coal industry’s future doesn't look bright and we have to look beyond that and learn to develop a new economy in Eastern Kentucky.”

Former legislator Roger Noe said Eastern Kentuckians "need to hear people like Comer speaking honestly about the future of the coal industry, and begin talking about economic diversification," Peterson said. "But he still doesn’t think telling that truth will translate into Election Day victory—at least not for now." (Read more)

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