WHITESBURG, Ky. -- Sitting at his desk in the Letcher County Courthouse in this Appalachian community of about 2,000 people, Judge Executive Jim Ward frets over the county's finances.
The sharp downturn in eastern Kentucky coal mining has kicked thousands of workers off the job and slashed severance tax revenues by $3 million during the county's last spending cycle out of an $11 million budget.
"It has devastated our region, our county," Ward said during a recent interview. "We are in survival mode," he said of a county with an unemployment rate above 11 percent, and asked, "What do you do? How do you survive, without making drastic cuts, without having to shut down basic services?"
"We've been looking at other avenues and diversifying somewhat, but still the jobs that are coming here now are not going to be the high-paying jobs like the mining jobs."
The coal downturn, which has been particularly painful in central Appalachia, has become a key talking point in several highly contested political races. And President Obama's mining and climate change policies have given Republicans ammunition and angered many area Democrats -- enough for the party to forever lose parts of its base in this part of the world.
"I feel like the national party has run off and left me. And that's being honest," said Ward, a Democrat elected to his post as the county's top leader. "I just feel like they have forgotten the grass-roots Democrats that put them where they are."
For more than a decade, Appalachia has been trending Republican because of national Democratic views on things like guns and social issues. For many residents, coal is another strike against a party they've been relying on -- and voting for -- since the New Deal.
"Our county is probably 3-1 Democrat but probably not going to vote that way," Ward said. "That's just an opinion from what I hear people say."
Indeed, there are 11,954 registered Democrats in Letcher County, compared with 3,870 Republicans. Democrats also have a significant registration advantage in the nearby coal field counties of Harlan and Pike.
Democrats top Republicans in voter registration statewide, too. But a new Gallup Inc. poll released today showed more Kentuckians identified as Republicans or leaned toward the GOP, a change from previous years.
If Democrats decide to stay home or vote Republican, it could make a difference for Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, the Democrats' nominee to take on Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell.
Al Cross, a University of Kentucky journalism professor and longtime political observer, said Democrats are indeed risking Appalachian votes to protect the environment and stop climate change. "They are risking them for a worthy cause," Cross said during an interview.
The problem, Cross said, is that many people feel the rules are coming down like a "sledgehammer." The Obama administration touts dialogue and flexibility for states, but Cross said it is "sadly mistaken" if it thinks that will change the political repercussions.
Administration officials also point to market issues for coal's woes. Politicians often blame the White House for all of Appalachia's problems, but even climate skeptics and GOP sympathizers here understand the problem is not that simple.
Still, they see the administration as having turned a deaf ear to their concerns. And even though Obama talked about giving "special care to people and communities" affected by the clean energy transition during his Georgetown University climate speech last year, Appalachians feel forgotten.
"We really haven't seen any direct evidence of that," Cross said. "It does not seem like the administration has delivered on that explicit promise."
The long-standing Appalachian Regional Commission has since 2010 been working with other federal agencies to coordinate efforts at boosting the area's economy. In Congress, Reps. David McKinley (R-W.Va.) and Peter Welch (D-Vt.) are pushing legislation to aid displaced miners.
In Kentucky last year, a bipartisan group of politicians launched the Shaping Our Appalachian Region (SOAR) initiative. And in West Virginia, lawmakers are touting the Southern Coalfields Organizing and Revitalizing the Economy (SCORE) effort.
But regulations, not diversifying the economy, have been the main focus on the campaign trail, particularly among Republican candidates.
Speaking to a roomful of community and business leaders at the posh Griffin Gate Marriott Hotel in Lexington last week, McConnell said, "We have a depression here in eastern Kentucky." The Senate's GOP leader said turning back Obama administration regulations was at the "top of my list."
And speaking at a packed rally in rural Estill County, about an hour's drive away from Lexington, Grimes stressed a point she's had to repeat numerous times: "Barack Obama is not on the ballot, it's Alison Lundergan Grimes."
Fifth District Rep. Hal Rogers (R) has long represented Kentucky's eastern coal field counties -- and his district gave Obama a stunningly low 23 percent of the vote in 2012. The neighboring 6th District, which includes Lexington and Estill, was in Democratic hands between 2004 and 2013, and Obama took 42 percent there two years ago.
But even though the area is far from most of the eastern mines, the coal debate helped new GOP Rep. Andy Barr grab the district last cycle. Estill, which has more registered Democrats than Republicans, favored Barr by a significant margin.
GOP close to taking W.Va. House
Kentucky is a divided state. Most of its congressional delegation is Republican. So is the state Senate. But the House and the governor's mansion are in Democratic hands.
In neighboring West Virginia, the GOP rise is a more recent trend. During the 1990s the state's entire congressional delegation was Democratic.
Unless current momentum shifts, Republicans are likely to see Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R) replace retiring Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D), and former Maryland state Sen. Alex Mooney (R) replace Capito in the 2nd District.
But Republican hopes don't stop there. In Oak Hill, a small city north of Beckley, several GOP candidates gathered in a tight white-and-beige room in a community center last week to discuss what could be.
Evan Jenkins, the Republican state senator campaigning to unseat 19-term Democratic Rep. Nick Rahall, scoffed at the national Democratic agenda.
"There's nothing about that agenda that sits well with the people of West Virginia," he said confidently. "It's time for a change."
Jenkins switched from Republican to Democrat early in his political career in the early 1990s. It was probably a good choice. Back then, Democrats were more than 65 percent of the electorate, according to registration statistics.
"When I turned 18, my dad was a Democrat and his dad was a Democrat," Jenkins said during an interview. "My father obviously lived through the Great Depression, and there's a lot of legacy from the '30s and the '40s."
But while Democrats still dominate, especially in the southern coal fields, more voters are switching to the Republican column or declaring themselves members of no party. There were roughly 687,000 Democrats statewide in November 2008. Late last year the number was closer to 638,000. It's now around 607,000.
Jenkins switched back to Republican last year. "The issue of Second Amendment, the issue of health care, the issue of immigration, the issue of the coal industry," he said. "This agenda has been so devastating to the values and beliefs and the jobs of who we are in West Virginia."
West Virginia's new Republican attorney general, Patrick Morrisey, joined Jenkins in Oak Hill and spoke about pushing the state's Democratic leaders to embrace more litigation against Obama administration rulemaking.
A number of local GOP candidates joined the pair, hoping to ride their coattails. House of Delegates candidate William Hughes spoke about his community of Pax having lost much of its population and now dealing with coal layoffs. Another candidate, Tom Fast, called for a fundamental change in the way things are done in the Democratic-controlled state capital of Charleston.
"I've had countless people say they are registered Democrat but are not going to vote Democrat," said Jenkins. "We are five [candidates] away from having the House of Delegates change parties for the first time in 83 years."
The last time both Kentucky and West Virginia voted for a Democrat for president was during the Clinton years in the 1990s. Still, Democrats had an edge in Appalachian coal field counties. In 2000 and 2004, several of them went for Democratic candidates.
But when Obama was first on the ballot in 2008, coal field counties in Kentucky and most in West Virginia voted for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). And in 2012, Obama lost every single West Virginia county.
Analysts and area residents will say race has at least something to do with Obama's deep unpopularity in West Virginia and elsewhere in Appalachia.
"There's enough people around here who are prejudiced and don't like him because he's black," said longtime Democratic activist Dolores Rozzi, who has lived around the country but settled in Huntington, W.Va., about a decade ago.
Cross said Appalachians would have been upset with any politician who hurt coal. "There would have been upset, concern and people would have been dismayed and they would have felt let down," he said. "But with Obama, they already didn't like the guy. I don't think this is primarily about race, but I think race is an element."
Rozzi was manning the information desk the other day at the area's Democratic headquarters downtown, a large room full of signs for candidates like Rahall. There was also a picture of Obama on the wall, one Rozzi put up herself.
"I think the Republicans were sick and tired of losing elections. I think they've geared up. They think they're going to win this one," said Rozzi. Asked whether she was feeling pessimistic, the fiercely loyal Democrat said, "We're not feeling bad about anything right now."
In Kentucky, Shayne Puckett, Estill County Democratic chairman, was also optimistic about his party's chances. "In the political world right now, there is so much momentum behind the Democrat Party," he said during the Grimes rally. "The Republican Party, all they have done for the last six, eight, 10 years is say no, no, no."
What about Obama's impact on local races? "I think that horse has been beaten enough," Puckett said. "And American voters are waking up and realizing that may not be the wagon they want to jump on."
Democrats say they may regain momentum in Appalachia after Obama leaves office. During the 2008 Democratic presidential primaries, both Kentucky and West Virginia picked Hillary Clinton over Obama by significant margins. If she runs for president again in 2016, Clinton will try to woo those voters back into the fold.
Rozzi thinks Clinton can make inroads in her community. "I think it will be a new air to have a woman president," she said. "Women do things so well."
But both pro-coal advocates and environmentalists see the Clintons with skepticism. Former President Clinton has spoken in favor of Obama's climate agenda but has campaigned with pro-coal Grimes. Hillary Clinton, who campaigned with Grimes on Wednesday, made pro-coal statements during her failed presidential run.
"I think the Clintons believe they can carry Kentucky and West Virginia. But it's going to take some work," Cross said. "And they may not be willing to work that hard for that small number of electoral votes."
Even though pro-coal votes may still matter in local races, they didn't make enough of a difference in the past presidential election, where the industry was counting on an Obama defeat.
Phil Smith, government affairs chief for the United Mine Workers of America, which is supporting a variety of pro-coal Democrats but has distanced itself from Obama, said the importance of pro-coal voters to Appalachian races doesn't seem to be part of the administration's political calculation.
"People who live in rural areas are like people everywhere else. They want a secure job, a decent standard of living for their families, safe and robust communities, and the ability to live in peace," Smith said.
"To the extent that a future Democratic Party can project the message that it stands for those things, it can be competitive. But as things stand right now in rural America, and especially in Appalachia, this administration and the national Democratic Party is not sending that message. And that leaves state and local candidates vulnerable."
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