Who could have predicted it? As Donald Trump made a hostile takeover of the Republican Party, Kentucky suddenly became a battleground for Democratic presidential candidates.
With the GOP in crisis, maybe Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders see opportunity.
Clinton campaigned Monday in Ashland, a day before her husband, former President Bill Clinton, barnstormed Morehead, Lexington and Louisville. The Friday before, Chelsea Clinton was in Lexington to open her mother’s campaign headquarters.
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The May 17 primary election is all about the Democrats. That’s because the Republican presidential primary was replaced this year by a March 5 caucus so U.S. Sen. Rand Paul could get around state law and run for both the presidency and re-election to the Senate.
Kentucky is rarely consequential in presidential elections, so it is unusual for the state to get so much attention from candidates. Why this year?
One reason may be that this is the year of the populist outsider, and much of their support is coming from middle-class people in places like Kentucky. Economic changes over the past three decades have left many of them in the dust. The rich are getting richer, and everyone else is getting poorer.
The political establishment, especially a Congress controlled by wealthy special interests and gridlocked by Republicans’ hatred of President Barack Obama, seems to be doing nothing to help the middle class.
Trump and Sanders, both outsiders in the parties whose nominations they are seeking, have shocked the establishment by tapping into different aspects of this reservoir of unrest. And Sanders’ popularity has made Clinton, the embodiment of the Democratic establishment, scramble to the left to stay ahead.
Trump blames immigrants and weak leadership for America’s problems. Sanders blames Wall Street and greedy corporations. But neither can explain how they would get their revolutionary and often fuzzy ideas through Congress.
A major issue in recent Kentucky elections has been the collapse of the coal industry. Coal is being clobbered by a perfect storm of market forces: cheap natural gas, dwindling Appalachian reserves that make mining more costly, global concerns about climate change and decades of job losses caused by mechanization.
Republicans blame all of coal’s problems on Obama and environmental regulations, and many Kentuckians are gullible enough to believe them. So how will coal factor in this election? Good question.
Trump has promised to bring back Appalachian coal jobs. “We’re going to have great, clean coal,” he said. “We’re going to have an amazing mining business.” But he has offered no clue about how he will make that happen.
Sanders made clear in Lexington that he is no friend of coal. Climate change is real, and America must transition away from fossil fuels to “energy efficiency and sustainability,” he said. But Sanders promised billions in federal aid to help coal workers and communities transition to new jobs and economies.
Clinton has proposed a $30 billion plan to help displaced miners find new employment, protect their pension and health benefits and research coal technology that would be less damaging to the environment. She even promised to bring her husband out of retirement to run the effort.
So many Kentucky voters may be thinking: Do I want to bet on coal’s rebound or a different economic future?
Clinton beat Obama by 35 points in Kentucky’s 2008 Democratic primary. But Sanders could give her a run for her money this time, especially among young voters.
If Trump gets the nomination, many Republican leaders fear he could destroy the party and cost it both the White House and control of the Senate. But that doesn’t mean Trump won’t win Kentucky. I wouldn’t be surprised if he swept most of the state outside Lexington and Louisville.
Clinton is favored to win the Democratic nomination, and many analysts expect her to also take the presidency against Trump, one of the most politically inexperienced and polarizing presidential candidates in history. But anything could happen, especially if disaffected Sanders fans stay home on Nov. 8.