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In Kentucky’s Senate race, coal is where the heart is


Coal Mining

Political wisdom in Kentucky has long dictated that winning coal country is the key to victory. Photograph: China Photos/Getty Images


Powered by article titled “In Kentucky’s Senate race, coal is where the heart is” was written by Suzanne Goldenberg in Benton, Kentucky, for on Wednesday 9th July 2014 18.14 UTC

If there is a war on coal, the two contenders for Kentucky’s Senate seat are, somewhat improbably for the most contentious and expensive race this fall, both solidly on the same side.

Coal mining is locked in a death spiral in eastern Kentucky, but there is still a huge emotional and cultural attachment to the industry.

Kentucky now generates far more revenue from making cars and trucks than extracting coal. The state’s governor, Steve Beshear, is actively looking for new businesses for the old coal mining towns of eastern Kentucky.

But as Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate minority leader campaigning for re-election, likes to put it: coal is a way of life. And as his Democratic challenger, Alison Lundergan Grimes, put it last September: “Coal miners are Kentucky’s heart and soul.”

Political wisdom in Kentucky has long dictated that winning coal country is key to victory. But coal has assumed out-sized importance in this election as a devastating sequence of mine shut downs and job losses in eastern Kentucky have put the region, a once reliably Democratic source of votes, up for grabs.

And so a campaign that should be a study in contrasts – the attempt by Grimes, 35, to knock off McConnell, 72, a 30-year veteran of the Senate and one of the most powerful Republicans in the country – turns into nearly identical messages when it comes to talking about the future an industry that was for decades the economic mainstay of Kentucky, but is no longer.

The two candidates have become stuck looking mainly to the past, and the days when coal was still a mainstay of the economy. As McConnell tells it while stumping in the state, the main cause of coal’s decline is Barack Obama, and the Environmental Protection Agency, which has moved to regulate strip mining and limit carbon pollution from power plants.

“You know what they have in mind here: global warming,” McConnell told the 100 or so people who gathered over frosted cinnamon rolls at the Sugar & Spice cafe in Benton one recent morning. “Here you have got us with our liberal president on a jihad to deal with global warming.”

The result has been cataclysmic for Kentucky, he said.

“In our state, the EPA has created a depression in the coal fields,” McConnell said. “In eastern Kentucky, we have got a depression. Every one of those counties has got serious unemployment and out of work coal miners because of the Barack Obama Administration.”

The message from Grimes is almost identical – though, as a relative newcomer, she has had to work harder than McConnell to establish her pro-coal credentials.

Alison Lundergan Grimes

Alison Lundergan Grimes recently released her first attack ad, featuring a retired coal miner who asks about a $6,000 rise in medicare. Photo: Timothy D Easley /AP

In the past few weeks, she has put on a hard hat and harness and gone down a coal mine. She has accused McConnell of ignoring miners sickened with black lung, because he has called for repealing Obama’s health care reform law, which would help those with the disease. Her newest television ad, released on Tuesday, features her sitting with a coal miner, asking McConnell about a $6,000 rise in medicare. And when it comes to the EPA, Grimes’s message is practically indistinguishable from McConnell’s


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