Sam Youngman

Political Paddock: For Grimes, coal presents an endless tightrope

Kentucky Secretary of State and Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes waved to the crowd after being introduced by former Gov. Paul Patton on Jan. 16, 204, during a campaign stop in Prestonsburg. Photo by John Flavell
Kentucky Secretary of State and Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes waved to the crowd after being introduced by former Gov. Paul Patton on Jan. 16, 204, during a campaign stop in Prestonsburg. Photo by John Flavell The Herald-Leader

For some federal candidates in pro-coal Kentucky, the "D" behind their names is an inconvenient truth.

In an interview Friday with the Herald-Leader, likely Democratic Senate nominee Alison Lundergan Grimes demonstrated just how tough that truth can be as she continued her defense of coal in striking contrast with her national party.

Grimes has not blinked in her support of coal since getting in the race last summer. But Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and his allied super PACs are hammering away, seeing a tie between Grimes and perceived coal enemies like President Barack Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid as a key to victory.

McConnell rarely fails to mention Obama's "war on coal." Kentuckians for Strong Leadership, a super PAC aligned with the senator, has spent $150,000 on radio ads, half of that during the past week, calling Grimes a "dishonest liberal" who takes money from anti-coal Democrats.

That's where the incon venient truth comes into play. Grimes does raise money with Democrats like California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, who called coal a "fuel from hell."

She doesn't really have a choice.

At the end of the third quarter — end-of-year numbers have not been released by McConnell or Grimes; Republican challenger Matt Bevin raised $900,000 — McConnell held a more than $7 million fundraising advantage over Grimes. She needs help raising the money to compete, and there are not a lot of places for a Democrat to turn for that kind of cash that don't see coal as a leading contributor to global warming.

So does Grimes, who promised in Prestonsburg on Thursday night to "rein in" federal regulations, believe in global warming?

"I do believe that we are left with one Earth, and that it's our job to hopefully leave it in a better place than when we found it," Grimes told the Herald-Leader on Friday. "But I think that we don't, at the expense of overburdensome regulation, turn our blind eye to a devastating impact economically that Washington is having on jobs here in Kentucky. So for me, it is about a balanced approach."

Saying she'll be a "champion" where McConnell has been a "chatterbox," Grimes said her "vision is one that is defending and sustaining our coal industry, pushing for incentives that Senator McConnell has not pushed for, for instance, in clean coal technology."

"That is how we can take a balanced approach by also realizing as many, not just political leaders but educational leaders, our community leaders, business leaders, recognize that our coal industry is undergoing severe structural changes," she said. "If we are going to have true economic prosperity, if we are going to have jobs that are going to take us out through the future, for my nieces and nephews and beyond, we have to be diversifying our economy."

But when asked how she reconciles what appears to be a belief in global warming with her pro-coal campaign, Grimes walked a tightrope.

"I am a strong supporter of the jobs that are here in this state," she said. "It is over 12,000 Kentuckians whose lives depend on being able to put food on their tables and gas in their cars. That's who I am looking out for. And we have to. We need to have a fighter. We haven't had somebody fighting for us. We've got a lot of people fighting against us, but not a lot of people fighting for us. That's what I am an advocate for, and I will continue to do that.

"But we also have to, in order for looking out for those jobs, plan for the future, and the future is diversifying our economy so that we can, for instance, expand investments in our infrastructure... . We can bring federal incentives into the eastern and western coalfields. We can make sure that we are expanding access to early childhood education so that we're not leaving any child behind. For me, it's not just an environmental issue, it's an economic issue."

Grimes' confidence seems to be growing as a candidate in the new year.

But those long answers on coal and global warming demonstrate just how hard it is for a Democrat to run for federal office in a state where coal is heritage and Obama lost more than 42 percent of the vote in a closed Democratic primary to "Uncommitted."

McConnell is eager to try and topple that unenviable balancing act.

"She will, no matter what she says between now and the election, inevitably be tied to the anti-coal forces," McConnell told reporters in Lexington on Friday. "People who have been contributing to her campaign are hostile to coal. Vocally, aggressively hostile to coal.

"I think it's perfectly reasonable to assume that those who are supporting her think she's one of them. So look at who's supporting her, and reach your own conclusions."

Given his fundraising strength and history, McConnell might regret making that the standard. But it's unlikely that any of his backers have said, as Reid did in 2008, that "coal makes us sick, oil makes us sick, it's ruining our country, it's ruining our world."

That leaves Grimes spending 2014 on that tightrope, walking it uphill as she tries to ease Kentuckians' skepticism in reconciling the "D" by her name with her embrace of coal.

For Grimes, that's an inconvenient truth. Time will tell whether it's an insurmountable one.

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