During his final push to raise support among voters in Eastern Kentucky, Andy Beshear shook hands with one of his supporters in Floyd County and made his case: “We come out of Eastern Kentucky with a good vote, we win.”
The Democratic nominee for governor is battling an opponent who has tied himself to President Donald Trump and national social issues, such as abortion and illegal immigration, that carried Trump to a sweeping victory in Appalachian Kentucky during the last presidential election.
Beshear’s chances in Eastern Kentucky likely hinge on whether voters here separate Gov. Matt Bevin from Trump, and whether Beshear’s focus on state issues such as public pensions and access to health care resonate with voters.
“People need to understand the difference between the federal issues and the state issues,” said Kathryn Burke, a member of the Democratic Women’s Club of Pike County.
Many Eastern Kentucky counties are still largely Democratic, though they rarely vote that way in federal elections. Pike, Perry and Floyd counties all have more than twice as many registered Democrats as Republicans.
On Saturday, Beshear gave a nod to Floyd County’s turnout during his 2015 race for attorney general. Beshear won that race by just 2,200 votes statewide — 2,000 of those votes came from Floyd County.
During his visit to Pikeville, much of Pike County’s Democratic leadership showed up to give their support. Former Gov. Paul Patton and Pike County Judge-Executive Ray Jones were both in attendance. House Minority Floor Leader Rocky Adkins, who lost to Beshear in the gubernatorial primary but won throughout most of Eastern Kentucky, gave an impassioned speech urging the county to campaign for Beshear as the election draws near.
“We have got to dig deeper than we have ever dug,” Adkins said to a roaring crowd in Pikeville.
Privately, Adkins said the election is “not about Donald Trump,” but about the impacts of Bevin’s policy decisions in Eastern Kentucky.
He pointed to Bevin’s proposed changes to the state’s Medicaid program, which, Adkins argued, could cause thousands in the region to lose access to health care and put the financial well-being of rural hospitals in jeopardy.
“The only growth we’ve seen here has been in the health care industry,” Adkins said.
Eastern Kentucky’s economy, which has long been tied to the coal industry, has in many ways failed to rebound from coal’s collapse.
Unemployment rates were more than double the statewide average in four Eastern Kentucky counties last month. Harlan County, which bore the brunt of major layoffs from the bankruptcy of the coal company Blackjewel LLC this summer, had an unemployment rate of 11.9 percent.
Beshear honed in on the economic struggles of the region during his visit. He pointed to Bevin’s claims that the state’s economy has improved during his four years in office, saying that Eastern Kentucky has not benefited from that progress.
“The future of Eastern Kentucky’s economy is on the line,” Beshear said.
Much of Beshear’s speeches in Eastern Kentucky centered on the unpopularity of Bevin, rather than his own policy points. He focused on the importance of job growth in Eastern Kentucky, but did not elaborate on how he would bring industry to the region.
In Pikeville, he pointed to Enerblu, a failed battery manufacturing plant that Bevin had offered tax incentives, which promised hundreds of jobs at its proposed plant near Pikeville before it declared bankruptcy earlier this year.
“We’ve got a governor that brags about prosperity, but do you see it right here?” Beshear said.
Floyd County resident Stevie Hale, who plans to vote for Beshear, said many residents feel the same way: that Bevin’s policies have not brought the economic improvements that residents and their children need.
“If we don’t get help, we’re gonna have to leave here,” Hale said.
Cathryn Calhoun, a second-year teacher at Prestonsburg Elementary, whose mother works for the Attorney General’s office in Prestonsburg, acknowledged that Trump’s endorsement will go a long way with many voters in the state’s coal-producing counties.
Still, she said the governor’s controversial remarks about teachers, and his policies regarding their pensions, turned many of his would-be supporters in Eastern Kentucky against him.
“When he attacked public education, it changed a lot of their minds,” Calhoun said. “It was shocking that Bevin would turn on them.”