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June 3, 2014

Kentucky Senate race hangs on coal counties that rejected Obama

HYDEN, Ky. — President Barack Obama's decision to propose tougher limits on power-plant emissions poses a threat to Democrats in the coal-rich mountainsides of Kentucky and to their efforts to keep control of the Senate.

"The president seems willing to sacrifice Democrats for his legacy," said Bill Bissett, president of the Kentucky Coal Association in Lexington. "Any linkage to the president in a coal-producing state is a tremendous liability."

Republicans need a net gain of six seats in November's elections to secure a Senate majority, and a half-dozen key contests are in states with histories of hostility toward federal environmental regulations or close ties to the coal industry. They include West Virginia, Colorado, Louisiana, Montana, Arkansas and Kentucky.

Few Democrats have more at risk than Alison Lundergan Grimes, Kentucky's secretary of state. She's trying to topple Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, 72, in what would be a bonus win in her party's quest to hold its majority.

The news of the president's plan to impose on states a 30 percent reduction in harmful emissions by 2030 prompted McConnell to vow to introduce legislation "on behalf of our coal miners and Kentucky families to stop Obama from imposing this national energy tax."

With polls showing a close race, eastern Kentucky's rolling Appalachian countryside could help sway the outcome of the election.

Obama lost the state by 23 percentage points in 2012, and his Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, won all but one of the 30 counties that produce coal. Those jurisdictions represented almost a fifth of the state's total vote, and a prolonged battle over the fate of coal could energize that electorate.

"He's the worst thing that's happened to our government since I've been alive," Mikel Morgan, a 52-year-old retired miner, said outside the hair salon his daughter runs in the once-thriving town of Hyden.

This isn't the first time Obama risked his party's congressional standing over the issue of climate change.

In 2010, Democrats lost 63 seats and their House majority in part because the White House pressed for passage of a carbon-reduction plan that infuriated the coal industry and its powerful energy sector allies. The legislation died in the Senate, where the party managed to maintain control despite equally virulent opposition to the Affordable Care Act.

The House Republicans' election committee has targeted more than 30 Democratic incumbents for criticism as a result of the White House action.

Among the nation's 198 coal-producing counties, Leslie County, Kentucky, gave the president the least support in his 2012 re-election bid, data compiled by Bloomberg show. He won just 9 percent of the almost 5,000 votes cast. President Bill Clinton garnered 36 percent in the same county during his 1996 re-election campaign.

Grimes, 35, who calls herself a "pro-coal Democrat," will strive for Clinton's level of support -- or better -- as she tries to distinguish herself from Obama's energy policies.

In responding to the new emissions rules, Grimes was as biting in her criticism of them as McConnell.

"When I'm in the U.S. Senate, I will fiercely oppose the president's attack on Kentucky's coal industry because protecting our jobs will be my No. 1 priority," she said in a statement.

It's a tricky balancing act, as Larry Sizemore, a retired trucker and the rare Grimes supporter in Leslie County, learned from personal experience.

Inside the Just Around the Corner Hair Salon, off Hyden's Main Street, Sizemore and his cousin, Mikel Morgan, openly bickered over politics one morning last week.

McConnell has "done what he could and stood up to Obama and the war on coal," Morgan asserted, while Sizemore countered that the incumbent senator "has done nothing for eastern Kentucky."

As the debate came to a draw amid the blow-dryers, brushes and scissors, Sizemore, 67, stood by the president.

"People are just thinking about the here and now," he said. "I want my kids and grandkids to have fresh air."

The 3 million tons of coal that Leslie County produced in 2012 ranked 10th among the state's counties -- even though it was down 30 percent from 2011, according to Kentucky's Department for Energy Development and Independence.

Many of the area's mines are now closed and companies that operate there are under stress because of tougher federal regulations and competition from natural gas. Richmond, Virginia-based James River Coal Co., a mine operator in the U.S. Midwest and Appalachia, filed for bankruptcy in April.

Since Obama took office in 2009, eastern Kentucky's coal- sector employment has been cut by more than half and now stands at about 7,200, according to the state's data. For every direct mining job lost, at least three other Kentuckians lose their paychecks indirectly, the state's coal association says.

Leslie County had an unemployment rate of 14.7 percent in April, the fourth-highest in Kentucky. The toll on business and families is evident along Main Street, where some stores are closed and every retailer interviewed said sales are down.

Inside the entryway of the county courthouse, a large sign includes the slogan: "Coal Keeps the Lights On." Lately, some of the lights have been turned off.

"We were dependent on coal more than Detroit is on the auto industry," said Jeff Whitehead, executive director of the Eastern Kentucky Concentrated Employment Program, a nonprofit that promotes employment. "It's basically a single-industry economy, for the most part, and that's really our challenge."

The mining slowdown has hit the county's budget, which gets about a third of its revenue from a levy that Kentucky collects on coal as it's removed from the ground. For the second year in a row, the county won't have a summer work program for students to earn money doing odd jobs such as mowing grass and picking up trash. Only the public swimming pool will still employ them.

"We lay it on Obama and the EPA," said Leslie County Judge-Executive Jimmy Sizemore, the county's top elected official and a distant relative of the Grimes supporter, when asked who is to blame for the local economy. "People are hurt, and there is nothing they can do about it."

Allen Muncy, who owns a lumber-supply business in the county and keeps a coal mining helmet under glass near his front desk, said his business has dropped about 50 percent since Obama was elected in 2008. He blames the president for his losses and said he's confident McConnell will be re-elected.

"If Grimes gets in, that will just be a vote for Harry Reid," he said, in reference to the Senate majority leader. Muncy recalled that Reid, D-Nev., six years ago remarked that "coal makes us sick," in a television interview as he discussed the hidden costs of fossil fuels. Those four words are seared in Muncy's memory and those of his neighbors.

Dwayne Collett, 60, a retired coal miner in Leslie County, predicted that Grimes will falter outside Lexington, Louisville and the northern part of the state that borders Ohio.

"She can make a good talk, but when she gets out of the triangle, she's toast," he said.

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