As he turns his attention to winning re-election, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) has for days been hammering Hillary Clinton for saying she would put coal "out of business."
Paul’s appeal to miners, a once true-blue voting bloc, is a sign the former Republican presidential hopeful is facing a stiffer Democratic challenge than expected.
When Clinton, the leading Democratic presidential candidate, made her remarks last week, Paul immediately denounced her on Twitter. He then released an online video pledging to stand against Clinton’s war on coal (Greenwire, March 14).
Clinton later said she was "mistaken" in her remarks, which she made while trying to tout her coal country revitalization plan. Still, the bluntness of saying, "We’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business" gave Republicans the sound bite they needed to link Clinton to President Obama’s coal policies (Greenwire, March 16).
Paul’s campaign website, repurposed from his failed presidential bid, immediately prompts visitors to "stand with Kentucky coal." And in another video, he calls on Clinton to apologize.
"I think that this brazen comment, this casual disregard for hardworking Kentucky coal miners … she should apologize to every Kentucky worker who’s lost their job in recent times because of her policies," he said in the March 18 video.
Paul may indeed benefit from Clinton’s comments. At the same time, analysts say Paul may have enough chinks in his political armor for Lexington Mayor Jim Gray, the leading Democratic candidate running for the Senate seat, to exploit.
University of Kentucky journalism professor Al Cross, a columnist and former longtime chief political writer for Louisville’s Courier-Journal newspaper, said Paul is trying to hold onto coal-focused voters whom Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) wrenched from the Democratic column in 2014 in his own re-election bid.
"Paul wants to keep them where they’ve been moved," Cross said. "Maybe even move some more."
The Obama years have all but erased the once-strong Democratic identity of coal counties lining the border with Virginia and West Virginia, Cross said. A major factor has been the "historic" decline of the United Mine Workers of America union.
Defeating Democrat Jack Conway in 2010, Paul fared better than most Republicans before him in former UMWA strongholds, carrying Harlan and Letcher counties. His near-miss in Floyd County — "the Democratic linchpin" in eastern Kentucky — was also impressive at the time. But Cross said it helped Paul that Conway was "a very urbane kind of guy who didn’t campaign well."
It was McConnell’s landslide victory in 2014 that was the most ominous sign for Kentucky Democrats. Outside a few small counties, McConnell rolled by wide margins in Harlan and Letcher counties despite UMWA’s endorsing Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes. He also picked up an elusive GOP win in Floyd County.
‘Tilting at windmills’
Bill Bissett, president of the Kentucky Coal Association, which does not endorse candidates and works with members of both parties, said that by all accounts, Paul remains popular in coal country.
"Sen. Paul has been very critical of the Obama Administration and its actions against coal production and use, and his message is well received in the coalfields," Bissett wrote in an email.
The pro-mining group has met with Gray in his role as mayor but not yet on the Senate campaign trail, Bissett said. While not a coal mining center, Lexington is a relatively short drive from the state’s coal fields.
Still, Cross said many Kentuckians have misgivings about the libertarian Paul, who has sometimes taken a hard line in the Senate. Cross said Gray is "a popular, successful mayor of the second largest city" in the state.
Jim Cauley, a Democratic strategist who was campaign manager for Barack Obama’s successful 2004 Senate campaign in Illinois and for former Kentucky Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear’s 2007 win, said Paul’s sudden interest in coal is likely an effort to shore up his depleted war chest after two years preoccupied with "tilting at windmills" on the presidential campaign trail.
"My guess is he’s trying to make up ground," said Cauley, who grew up in Pike County, a top coal-producing area in Kentucky, and worked in the mines himself.
Gray, the former CEO of a construction firm he inherited from his father, has proved he has deep, willing pockets, having spent nearly $1 million of his own money on the 2010 mayoral campaign.
Paul will likely need money from the GOP and McConnell, Cauley said. While there is little love lost between the face of the GOP establishment and the outsider who rode the tea-party wave into office, both men have managed to work together.
Federal Election Commission records show Paul’s Senate campaign with just over $1 million, a figure low for an incumbent senator facing re-election. Gray’s fundraising numbers are not yet available.
The senator may also need to mend some fences. With unemployment in double digits in much of eastern Kentucky, Cauley said, Paul’s presidential escapades as far away as Alaska probably didn’t sit well with voters back home.
Paul penned a Dec. 1 Courier-Journal op-ed assuring Kentuckians that he was still fighting "President Obama’s job-killing anti-coal policies." But Cauley said, "It’s been my contention for a long time he hasn’t been tending his garden."
Republicans have also overplayed their hand in Kentucky, the Democratic operative said. In a recent special election for four state House seats, Republicans not only failed to take control of the chamber for the first time since 1921, but lost a seat to the Democrats.
Dem ‘doesn’t have to win’ coal fields
While Republicans fight the "war on coal," back home where he spent summers home working in coal mines, Cauley said, "there’s a slow realization that either we’ve got to get different sorts of jobs here, or it’s just the end."
Pro-coal advocates are ready to fight to the death. "I get it," Cauley said, "but there’s also the reality natural gas has got more to do with it than regulations."
Still, Gray was never going to win many voters who have soured on Democrats. Gray is Kentucky’s first openly gay mayor, a fact that may not sit well with the state’s famously conservative Democrats.
It’s not game over, Cauley said, like it would have been a decade ago, when Kentucky approved a ban on same-sex marriage by a two-thirds majority. Cauley said a similar vote today would be closer to 50-50.
"If [Republicans] want to make an issue of it, I think it’d be dangerous," he said.
Gray was always an urban, progressive candidate, Cauley said. With most votes concentrated in the cities, Gray just needs to avoid getting "whitewashed" in the rural parts of the state.
"He just has to hold his own in the coal fields. He doesn’t have to win the coal fields," he said. "I’m guessing Rand feels he’s got to run the score up there to make sure he can win."
Cauley pegged Gray’s chances at winning around 30, maybe even 35 percent. But he said the GOP should be nervous if Donald Trump secures the Republican presidential nomination.
"If they’re not, they ought to be, because if the top of their ticket is what it could be," Cauley said. "Presidential races, your turnout tends to skew younger and female — that’s a problem for Rand Paul."