A Democrat in Kentucky is not necessarily a Democrat in every state. Take Ray Jones, who is the top-ranking Democrat in Kentucky’s state Senate. He’s been in office for 16 years, but this year he’s got some competition.
Another personal injury lawyer in their hometown of Pikeville in Eastern Kentucky, Glenn Hammond, is challenging the Senate minority leader for his seat. And in just about every other universe, a Democratic primary challenger tends to come at you from the left, or at least draws you in that direction.
But this is Eastern Kentucky. As the Lexington Herald-Leader’s Bill Estep reports, both men are running from President Obama, who is not popular in the state — and particularly the eastern part of it — and an equally unpopular Hillary Clinton as fast as they can ahead of Tuesday's primary.
You could be forgiven for thinking the below graphs described a Republican primary:
Hammond said in an advertisement that Jones is a liberal career politician who supported Obama for election twice. The ad also used a quote from Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton about putting coal miners out of business.
“He’ll vote for Hillary,” Hammond said of Jones in his latest ad. “I won’t.”
Clinton did talk about putting miners out of work, but said later it was a misstatement and she meant market forces are causing coal’s decline. She earlier released a plan to help miners and coal regions.
Jones said it was an “outright lie” for Hammond to say Jones will vote for Clinton. Jones said he disagrees with Clinton on many things and has not said he will vote for her.
Jones said he has fought for the coal industry and has been endorsed by the United Mine Workers of America.
For his part, Jones put out an ad calling Hammond a “closet liberal” who had donated “big money” to Obama’s war on coal.
Here are the ads in question:
This, of course, isn’t altogether surprising, given the region. In recent years, conservative but long-Democratic Kentucky has steadily been moving into the red column. In November, Gov. Matt Bevin became only the second Republican in 40 years to lead the state. And this spring, Democrats almost lost their nearly century-long hold on the state House in Kentucky. They held on by a few seats in a special election, but some experts think it’s only a matter of time before Kentucky is controlled by Republicans from top to bottom.
That political dynamic means national Democratic leaders just aren’t popular, even among many Kentucky Democrats. In December, Democratic state Rep. Jim Gooch switched parties, in part because he didn't agree with Obama's position on coal. He was the second Democrat to turn Republican since the GOP's gains in November.
And that's the other big factor at play here. Coal-mining jobs have been on the decline for decades. Thirty years ago, there were nearly three times as many miners as there are now, The Fix's Philip Bump wrote recently.
Clinton herself probably exacerbated this — and made herself an issue in races like this state Senate battle — when in a CNN town hall in March she said she’d help working-class white Americans get new jobs in renewable energy. Then she said this, "Because we're going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business."
Her promise prompted a visibly emotional Kentucky coal miner to confront her about it weeks later.
Hammond and Jones are vying to represent a region where the loss of coal jobs has hit particularly hard. Pikeville sits smack in the middle of Appalachia’s coal country, and as coal-mining jobs have vanished — a phenomenon often cheered by climate-change-focused Democrats — poverty here has risen.
When viewed through that lens, it makes sense that two Democratic state Senate candidates from this region want to run from their party's leaders as fast as they can. But the terms in which they are doing it are pretty striking.