Kentucky Dem looks to made inroads in pro-Trump coal country

HAZARD, Ky. (AP) — At the front of a parade through downtown Hazard, Andy Beshear briskly crisscrossed the street to greet more people. The Democratic candidate for governor of Kentucky was mining for support in coal country, where voters have swung to the GOP as coal jobs vanish.

View all (9)

Not far behind, a Republican float resembling a train proclaimed "All Aboard" President Donald Trump's 2020 reelection campaign and sported signs for Republican Gov. Matt Bevin — Beshear's opponent this year.

Beshear will need plenty of political agility to avoid being run over by the Trump bandwagon as the bitter gubernatorial race enters its final weeks.

Support for Trump remains solid in places like Perry County and Bevin frequently touts his ties to the president.

But the governor lost parts of eastern Kentucky in the May Republican primary. Even though Trump dominated Perry County in 2016, Bevin carried the county by just a handful of votes. Bevin says he's worked to strengthen Appalachian communities through economic development grants, job training programs and broadband access. He also stresses his opposition to abortion in the culturally conservative region.

But in yet another sign that his support may not run deep in the mountains, the president's eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., spoke to a mostly empty arena in nearby Pikeville at an August rally for Bevin.

Beshear hopes to reclaim Appalachian votes for Democrats by stressing "kitchen table issues" — education, health care, jobs and pensions — and by poking at Bevin's vulnerabilities. The governor's term has been rocky despite a strong economy and big GOP majorities in the legislature. He's struggled to fix the underfunded public pension systems he inherited and has a habit of lashing out at critics.

It was Bevin's vitriolic words for teachers who opposed his pension plans that lingered in some voters' minds in Hazard.

Michelle Gambill, an eighth-grade teacher, voted for Bevin four years ago — a decision she's ashamed of now. Gambill participated in teachers' rallies at Kentucky's Capitol that drew Bevin's ire.

In 2018, Bevin claimed, without evidence, that an unnamed child left home alone was sexually assaulted in Kentucky on a day teachers closed schools to protest his pension plan. Bevin later apologized, but then lobbed another unsubstantiated allegation when the teachers walked out again.

"When he got personal is when he turned me against him," Gambill said.

At the parade, Gambill posed for a selfie with Beshear, who opposes charter schools and has proposed a $2,000 across-the-board pay raise for public school teachers to address a statewide teacher shortage.

Several others expressed disgust with Bevin's attacks but weren't sure which factor will hold more sway in the Nov. 5 election — educators' anger or Trump's support.

"Teachers have a lot of pull around here," said Kathy Mullins, no fan of the governor. "Everybody knows one, likes one. So it could be about even."

But Bevin supporter Eric Pratt criticized teachers who used sick days to attend rallies. Pratt, a utility company manager, said he'd lose his job if he makes a "fraudulent sick call" to attend a protest.

In eastern Kentucky, Democrats were battered by the backlash against President Barack Obama's environmental rules and Hillary Clinton's admission that coal companies would be put "out of business" by a nationwide shift to renewable energy. In 2016, Trump talked up his support for coal, rolling up huge victories in even the most Democratic counties in the area.

In a new twist on nationalizing Kentucky politics, Republicans tried to link Democrats to the Green New Deal, which would shift energy supplies away from fossil fuels like coal to curb greenhouse gases blamed for global warming.

Parade-goer Herman Dixon, a retired miner, said coal production will never "be back like it was," blamed Obama's regulations and said Obama failed to deliver alternatives.

"He didn't try to help us," Dixon said.

Eastern Kentucky's coal production plummeted this decade and employment plunged from 13,020 mining jobs in 2010 to 3,996 last year.

Dixon, a registered Democrat, bases his support for Bevin in part on another potent issue — opposition to abortion.

Beshear supports the U.S. Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion nationwide, but says he backs "reasonable" restrictions, especially on late-term abortions. Bevin raises the issue every chance he gets.

"While Matt Bevin has fought tirelessly for the sanctity of life, Andy Beshear is endorsed by the national abortion lobby," said Bevin campaign manager Davis Paine.

Beshear — the son of Kentucky's last Democratic governor, Steve Beshear — is betting that economic issues and an aversion to Bevin's caustic governing style will override voters' loyalty to Trump.

"Kentuckians know that a governor doesn't have much impact on federal policy, but has a whole lot of impact on the types of jobs that exist in their community and whether or not their rural hospital is vibrant," Andy Beshear said.

State Rep. Rocky Adkins, the top-ranking House Democrat and an eastern Kentucky native, doesn't think support for the president extends to Bevin.

"This race is not about Donald Trump," said Adkins, who lost to Beshear in the primary. "This race is about the most unpopular governor in America."