HAZARD—Speaking as if Republican Senator Mitch McConnell were in the room, Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes told an Eastern Kentucky crowd Wednesday afternoon that she is the true champion of coal in the U.S. Senate race.
“Senator, let’s set the record straight. I’m the only pro-coal candidate in this race,” said Grimes, joined on stage by former President Bill Clinton and members of the United Mine Workers of America.
Grimes’ campaign filled the Hal Rogers Center in Hazard beyond its capacity. The optics were clear—these coal miners have her back.
It’s a revamped message of the Grimes campaign the last three months of the contest, emphasizing the workers and their families rather than prominent industry leaders.
The question remains: Can Grimes win over Kentucky’s coal voters?
UMWA member Jimmy “Possum” Evans of Hopkins County is a 10-year retiree who intends to vote for Grimes this fall. He said those watching the Senate race should know when it comes to Kentucky, coal industry officials and miners don’t always share the same views.
“The mine operators want you to work for nothing so they can pad their pockets is what it amounts to,” he said. “She sounds like she’s pro-coal, at least I feel like she is. I was pleased with what she said.”
Union leaders are calling the UMWA endorsement of Grimes over the weekend a “game-changer” in the Senate race. The union is also planning to launch an ad campaign throughout Eastern Kentucky.
Critics of the nod point out the UMWA has less than 1,000 active workers in its ranks. Those previous endorsements haven’t helped other Democratic candidates seeking to run for Senate in the past.
And a hole in Grimes’ well-orchestrated event Wednesday were a noticeable number of UMWA members who said they were bussed to the campaign event from West Virginia.
Then there’s President Obama, who Evans indicated is more disliked among union members than McConnell in many instances. In 2012, UMWA declined to endorse the president’s re-election.
McConnell ties Grimes to the current president and national Democrats at every opportunity, arguing their environmental policies are responsible for the massive job losses.
That’s one of the reasons Grimes is deploying Clinton, who won Kentucky in both of his presidential runs.
During his speech, Clinton spoke of the need for more bipartisan work in Congress to advocate for rural Americans. He also reminded audience members of his work as a lawyer on black lung disease cases before giving them some free advice.
“Now I’ll give you a gift,” said Clinton. “Do the smart thing and send Alison to the Senate.”
Unlike Obama’s visceral unpopularity—one UMWA member threatened to physically harm the president—Clinton is beloved in the region.
“I really think President Clinton does understand rural people better,” said Evans’ wife, Alberta. “He’s always been there for Kentucky, and Kentucky’s been for him.”
McConnell’s team, however, quickly tagged the former president as anti-coal too.
“It must not have occurred to Alison Lundergan Grimes that after Barack Obama declared the war on coal, he named the building tasked with executing his mission after the man she’s bringing to Eastern Kentucky,” McConnell campaign spokeswoman Allison Moore said in a released statement.
“Evidently she doesn’t think Eastern Kentuckians an execute a basic Google search to reveal that Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, and now Alison Lundergan Grimes have every intention of continuing to attack their way of life.”
Grimes’ advisers understand a winning strategy in November must include shrinking some of McConnell’s 15-point lead in the eastern half of Kentucky. Though polling finds Grimes leads among voters regarding trust on jobs overall, respondents to the Bluegrass Poll last month said by a 43-to-39 margin McConnell was the better candidate in terms of preserving coal jobs.
The conventional thinking is that McConnell is the favorite when it comes to Appalachia voters and coal.
Evans said he is still uncertain if Grimes has proven to be the stronger coal advocate. But he also said retired and current coal miners like him are fed up with McConnell’s record.
“Mitch McConnell has voted against us all the time,” he said. “I haven’t voted for Mitch, he been there for 30 years and I ain’t cast a vote once for him.”