Politics & Government

Will Amy McGrath vs. Andy Barr open a new battlefront in the 'war on coal?'

Democrat Amy McGrath and Republican Andy Barr.
Democrat Amy McGrath and Republican Andy Barr.

U.S. Rep. Andy Barr made coal a central part of his campaign when he landed a seat in Congress.

Now facing what could be his first truly competitive challenge, the politics of coal are likely to play a significant role in the Republican incumbent’s race to defend his Central Kentucky seat against Democrat Amy McGrath.

There are no active mines in the district and President Barack Obama, hugely unpopular in Kentucky for efforts to cut emissions from coal-fired power plants, is no longer in office. But efforts to shield the coal industry from further decline and to aid miners and their families remain a potent issue for many voters in the congressional district, particularly in the rural counties outside Lexington. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump pledged on the campaign trail to end what he called a "war on coal" and won Kentucky with nearly twice as many votes as Democrat Hillary Clinton.

Moments after McGrath clinched the Democratic nomination, Barr’s campaign warned that McGrath stands to "re-impose the ruinous regulations that gave us the weakest recovery since the Great Depression."

Barr’s campaign wouldn’t say whether he’d use coal as an issue, but delivered a point-by-point list of coal-friendly legislation the Kentucky Republican has pursued.

“As a member of the Congressional Coal Caucus, Congressman Barr has been a consistent and persistent advocate for Kentucky coal, fighting for coal jobs and benefits, and promoting Americans’ access to affordable, reliable energy,” said Jodi Whitaker, Barr's communication director.

In 2012, as he challenged Democratic incumbent Ben Chandler, Barr successfully tied the incumbent to Obama, repeatedly underscoring Chandler's support in 2009 for the Obama-backed "cap and trade" bill that angered coal officials by seeking to curb carbon dioxide emissions from coal-powered plants. The measure stalled in the Senate and never became law.

In one Barr campaign ad, a man dressed as a coal miner called Chandler a "low life."

It’s different this time: McGrath, a campaign neophyte who stunned the political world when she won the primary Tuesday night against better known Lexington Mayor Jim Gray, has no voting record for Barr to pick apart.

That hasn’t stopped Republican strategists from scouring her record. One area they point to is that McGrath, on her campaign website, criticized President Donald Trump for pulling out of the 2015 Paris climate agreement, which aimed to curb greenhouse gas emissions and climate change.

Barr, on the other hand, co-sponsored a congressional resolution calling for the U.S. to withdraw from the pact, saying it would have “forced the United States to ration its most affordable and reliable sources of energy.”

A former Marine fighter pilot, McGrath noted that the U.S. military recognizes that climate change “poses a serious challenge to our national security” and is researching ways to adapt.

“We owe it to our fellow Americans to take every measure possible in mitigating the effects of climate change,” she wrote.

She added that acknowledging climate change doesn’t have to be an “either/ or” for coal and suggested that Kentucky coal-generated electricity could be used in a variety of ways, including charging electric vehicles.

She told the Herald-Leader in an interview before she entered the race in Kentucky's 6th Congressional District that coal “has been played as a political football.

“These are real lives, real people,” she said, calling it “terrible” and a “failure of leadership on both sides of the aisle.”

She noted that studies have indicated that a boom in the natural gas industry was more responsible for coal’s collapse than federal regulations, adding, "that really doesn't matter anymore. It's how do we help these people, how do we help them going forward?”

McGrath’s campaign said she demonstrated during the Democratic primary that she’s not a cookie cutter candidate and that it’s ready to counter what it said would be “predictable” charges.

“These worn out attacks are what the public hates about politics,” said Mark Nickolas, McGrath’s campaign manager. He noted McGrath’s primary challengers tried to torpedo her bid by highlighting the fact that she had only recently moved to the congressional district. McGrath was born and grew up in Kentucky, but only moved to the district in 2017.

“We already got the carpetbag label and that didn’t seem to go so well for them,” Nickolas said.

He argues that Republicans will have a tougher time tying McGrath to national Democrats because she ran against Gray, the choice of the party establishment and is not beholden to the party for her victory. Yet that argument may be fleeting: the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee on Thursday named McGrath to its “Red to Blue” program, which brings with it organizational and fundraising support and underscores the fact that the district is one Democrats hope to flip to regain the House.

Nickolas noted that McGrath dedicated a substantial portion of her economic plan to addressing the needs of the coal industry and the communities reeling from the slump in coal, proposing some possible solutions.

“Good luck in convincing the voters that Amy McGrath is some sort of caricature,” he said. “She is someone of substance. “

Barr in 2012 enjoyed considerable financial support from coal executives and their political action committees, and that continues.

The United Mine Workers of America, which is giving nearly two-thirds of its contributions to Democrats in this election cycle, is backing Barr and will give him as much support as it can, a spokesman said.

“He’s consistently supported our efforts to preserve retiree health care and pension benefits,” said union spokesman Phil Smith. “He’s been a leader of that effort here in D.C.”

Barr’s campaign notes he backed legislation to provide money to support existing liabilities for retired coal miners’ health care benefits and that the legislation was signed into law by Trump in May 2017. Barr has also co-sponsored legislation to secure health and pension benefits for retired coal miners and their families, Whitaker said.

Barr also has contributions from the National Mining Association's political action committee, along with coal producers Missouri-based Arch Coal and Tulsa, Okla., -based Alliance Coal.

The HAAS eKentucky Advanced Manufacturing Institute aims to train and find employment for its students, and to attract industry to a region hit hard by the decline of coal production.

Herald-Leader Reporter Daniel Desrochers contributed to this report.