McConnell, GOP make gains in Kentucky coal country


VAN LEAR, Ky. (AP) - Deep in Kentucky's coal country, about a mile from where coal miner's daughter Loretta Lynn was born, Mack Lowe voted for Republican Mitch McConnell for the first time in Kentucky's U.S. Senate race.

"It's kind of rough seeing your neighbors struggling, hurting for work," said Lowe, a former coal miner who said all the men of his family were coal miners. "I think he'd be the man for the job by putting coal back in there. I hope, anyway."

McConnell won re-election Tuesday by tying Democratic challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes to President Barack Obama - and coal mining was a major part of how he did it. He accused Grimes of supporting Obama's energy policies, which call for lower carbon emissions and have made it difficult to replace the state's aging fleet of coal-fired power plants.

Grimes pushed back with an endorsement from the United Mineworkers of America, TV commercials showing her underground with a hard hat and coal dust smeared on her face, and campaign visits from former President Bill Clinton through Kentucky's coal country. But it did not matter on Election Day, as McConnell won the region by 64,000 votes in what was supposed to be the toughest re-election campaign of his career. Just six years earlier, McConnell won the region by 8,000 votes in a close race with Democrat Bruce Lunsford.

"She did everything from literally going down into a coal mine, the bus tours ... But it just wasn't enough," said Greg Stumbo, the Democratic state house speaker from Prestonsburg who tried to give Grimes' campaign a coal country boost.

In parts of eastern Kentucky, support for Democrats dates back at least to the days of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose New Deal programs designed to boost recovery from the Great Depression were popular in the hardscrabble Appalachian counties.

McConnell flipped four eastern Kentucky counties that he has never won before, including Pike County, the state's second-largest coal producer, and Floyd County, where Stumbo lives. The victory was so astounding it had Republicans wondering if they had altered the political landscape for good in Kentucky's coal country.

"I think more people are willing to look at Republicans than they were in the past. Mitch McConnell and (Republican Congressman) Hal Rogers have pretty much got people conditioned to vote for them," said Tom Eckert, a Perry County attorney who voted for McConnell. "It will be interesting to see what happens next."

But the Republican victory in Kentucky was not complete. While McConnell won 110 of 120 counties on his way to a 15-percentage-point victory, Republican candidates for the state House of Representatives were unable to ride McConnell's coattails to the Capitol. Republicans did not pick up a single seat in yet another failed bid to take control of the state House of Representatives for the first time since 1920. With West Virginia's House of Delegates reverting to Republican control for the first time since the 1930s, it leaves Kentucky as the only Southern state with a Democratic majority in the state legislature.

"It's obvious that people weren't totally upset with all Democrats," Stumbo said. "It was a backlash against the president of the United States."

And that's where Grimes went wrong, said Ned Pillersdorf, a Floyd County attorney who doubles as a Democratic campaign consultant for local candidates. If you stop 10 people on the street in Floyd County, he said, eight will tell you the president wants to ban coal mining, "and you can't convince them otherwise." Grimes, he said, had a tool to push back against the demonization of the president by touting the success of the Affordable Care Act, which has lowered Kentucky's uninsured rate to roughly 10 percent from 20 percent.

"She should have defended the Affordable Care Act, which would have worked to un-demonize the president," Pillersdorf said.

Grimes did defend kynect, Kentucky's health insurance exchange created under the Affordable Care Act, but it never made it into her TV commercials and was rarely mentioned in her stump speech.

McConnell has not let up on his coal rhetoric, even after being re-elected. On Wednesday, McConnell described Obama's energy policies as a "war on coal" and an abuse of presidential power that he would try to curb as majority leader.

"Look for us to go after those kinds of things through the spending process, which I think is our best tool in our governmental system," he said.

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