FRANKFORT — The coal industry has gotten behind Republican congressional candidate Andy Barr again in Central Kentucky's 6th District, even though most of the state's coal mines are many miles away in the more mountainous Appalachian region.
Coal executives and their political action committees have contributed at least $40,000 to help fund Barr's challenge to Democratic U.S. Rep. Ben Chandler.
Coal issues matter in Lexington, the 6th District's largest city that's home to a sizable bloc of Appalachian transplants as well as offices for the Kentucky Coal Association and several major mining companies. The city is also home to environmentally concerned voters who bitterly oppose the effects of mining on water quality and the Appalachian landscape.
Republican Larry Forgy said coal became even more significant this year when congressional redistricting shifted the 6th District further eastward into the Appalachian foothills, adding voters who he believes identify more with mining than horse racing.
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That explains why Chandler and Barr spend as much time talking about coal issues as even coalfield politicians.
"I am focusing on the Obama-Chandler war on coal because of the thousands of jobs it has cost Kentuckians, not because it might raise money for my campaign," Barr said. "My objective is not to represent one industry, but one state that desperately needs job creation."
Republicans have tried to paint Chandler as a surrogate to President Barack Obama, who has been sharply criticized in the coalfields for his administration's environmental policies. The tactic has left Chandler's campaign coffers bereft of coal industry contributions while Barr has socked them away.
Chandler, however, insists that he's no enemy of coal. He opposed Obama earlier this year with a call for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to back off of policies that have made it difficult for Kentucky companies to open or expand coal mines.
"Congressman Chandler believes we must be good stewards of the air we breathe and the water we drink," said spokeswoman Meghan Groob. "At the same time, he will continue to fight for the commonwealth's low-cost energy advantage and to protect coal jobs that are so important to thousands of Kentucky families and our economy."
Fund-raising reports filed with the Federal Election Commission show executives with Alliance Coal, James River Coal and Patriot Coal as some of Barr's biggest donors.
Barr has raised more than $1 million for his general election bid, but he still trails Chandler, whose fund-raising topped $1.5 million on his latest report to the Federal Election Commission.
They're engaged in what is expected to be Kentucky's most competitive general election congressional race to be decided Nov. 6. Barr, a Lexington attorney, sought a rematch with Chandler after losing a squeaker to him two years ago.
Since then, the state legislature had redrawn the boundaries around the congressional district, strengthening Chandler at least slightly by removing some traditionally Republican communities and replacing them with Democratic strongholds.
The political makeup of the district is now 289,420 Democrats to 162,652 Republicans. Before redistricting, Democrats outnumbered Republicans 284,524 to 170,678.
Chandler, a former attorney general who has served Central Kentucky in Congress since 2004, reported that he still had $1.3 million on hand, compared with Barr's $750,000.
Tea Party activist David Adams said far more coal money could still pour into the race.
"What we don't know is if a half dozen of them will set up a super PAC to drop on Ben Chandler closer to the election," he said.
Kentucky Coal Association President Bill Bissett said he has heard no talk of coal companies doing that. The biggest contribution from a mining company so far this year was $7,500 from the Arch Coal PAC. Two others, COALPAC and Patriot Coal PAC, each gave $1,000.
"We have some companies that are very politically engaged, and some that are not," Bissett said. "I would say of all the races this year, the greatest focus is on the Chandler-Barr race. It is seen as a competitive race.
"It's definitely a race that we're watching closely."