Hillary Clinton may have nosed out Bernie Sanders in Kentucky’s Democratic presidential primary, but her chances of beating Republican Donald Trump here in November are what handicappers would call a long shot.
Never mind that even many Republicans consider Trump a demagogue unfit for the presidency. Their party has been slinging mud at Clinton for more than two decades, and a lot of it has stuck.
Kentucky is rarely of any importance in presidential elections, but the Clinton campaign went all-out here to avoid national embarrassment. Clinton, her ex-president husband, Bill, and even their pregnant daughter, Chelsea, made appearances around the state.
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Clinton had strong support among Kentucky’s establishment Democrats. Four former Democratic governors appeared with her at a Lexington rally Monday, which drew maybe 400 people. But much of the grassroots support seemed to go to Bernie Sanders, whose May 4 rally in Lexington attracted 5,500.
Clinton knew she had a fight on her hands, despite carrying the state with 65 percent of the vote in 2008. That race was against Barack Obama, who has gotten even less popular in Kentucky since then.
Republicans have convinced many voters that Obama’s environmental policies are the main reason the coal industry has collapsed, even though experts mostly blame cheap natural gas and other market forces.
The “war on coal” rhetoric has hurt Clinton much more than Sanders, who swept most of Eastern Kentucky on Tuesday. A week earlier, Sanders beat Clinton in West Virginia by 15 percentage points.
Clinton was badly hurt by a comment she made March 13 at a CNN forum in Ohio, which was widely used out of context.
“I’m the only candidate which has a policy about how to bring economic opportunity using clean renewable energy as the key into coal country,” she said. “Because we’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business, right Tim? And we’re going to make it clear that we don’t want to forget those people. Those people labored in those mines for generations, losing their health, often losing their lives to turn on our lights and power our factories. Now we’ve got to move away from coal and all the other fossil fuels, but I don’t want to move away from the people who did the best they could to produce the energy that we relied on.”
Republicans, focusing only on her second sentence, hit Clinton so hard that she issued an apology, which seemed to do her no good. Pro-coal sentiment should help Trump win Kentucky in November, even though he has offered no plan for reversing the industry’s decline. If Sanders’ supporters stay home in November, Clinton could lose big in the state.
Lexington Mayor Jim Gray cruised to an easy victory in a field of seven candidates in the Democratic primary to challenge U.S. Sen. Rand Paul for re-election in November. Paul, with only token opposition, stayed in Washington, where the Senate was in session.
Kentucky’s conservative streak will make Paul tough to beat in November. But Gray came out swinging Tuesday, claiming Paul has ignored the state while spending his six-year Senate term running for president.
“He’s done nothing to fix Washington or help Kentucky,” Gray told supporters. “You’ve got my word: I’m never running for president. … And that’s a commitment you will never get from Sen. Paul.”
Paul’s failed presidential bid is why there was no Republican primary. He helped pay for the party to hold a caucus March 5 so he could legally run for both offices. But he gave up his presidential bid before the caucus, which Trump won with 36 percent of the vote in a four-man race.
Nancy Jo Kemper, a Woodford County minister and retired executive director of the Kentucky Council of Churches, easily won the Democratic nomination to challenge Republican U.S. Rep. Andy Barr for the Sixth District congressional seat.
Barr brushed off a Tea Party challenger and is the favorite to win re-election in November. Although the district includes Democrat-friendly Lexington and Frankfort, the other 17 counties lean conservative.
Republicans are sure to keep attacking Kentucky Democrats as “Obama liberals.” They have used the first black president as a punching bag for eight years, and it has worked well for them in this state. The fact that Obama is leaving office won’t make much difference.
As James Hillary Mulligan’s 1902 poem famously said, politics is “the damnedest” in Kentucky, and the next six months could set a new standard.