How will Bevin’s unpopularity impact Tuesday’s special election in Eastern Kentucky?

Democrat Darrell Pugh, left, and Republican Phillip Wheeler are vying for an open state Senate seat in Eastern Kentucky.
Democrat Darrell Pugh, left, and Republican Phillip Wheeler are vying for an open state Senate seat in Eastern Kentucky.

Voters in five Eastern Kentucky counties will decide Tuesday who should replace former state Senate Minority Floor Leader Ray Jones in a special election marked by mudslinging.

Both candidates describe themselves as pro-coal, pro-life and pro-gun, and have promised to stand up for public employees and teachers in the ongoing debate over state pensions.

Websites for the candidates give sparse descriptions of their policy platforms, but they promised during interviews with the Lexington Herald-Leader to promote economic development in a region decimated by coal’s decline and encourage increased funding of public schools.

Democrat Darrell Pugh has called his Republican opponent Phillip Wheeler a “Matt Bevin puppet,” while ads paid for by the Republican Party of Kentucky say Pugh represents “Pelosi-Clinton Liberal Values.”

Wheeler, a Republican personal injury attorney with Kirk Law Firm in Pikeville, has represented coal miners seeking federal and state black lung benefits for nearly 15 years.

Wheeler said he publicly opposed House Bill 2, a measure passed last year that reduced the number of doctors who could diagnose black lung for miners seeking workers’ compensation benefits.

As President of the Kentucky Workers Association, a group of attorneys who represent injured Kentucky workers, Wheeler said he “led the charge opposing the Republicans and Gov. Bevin on House Bill 2.”

Rep. Angie Hatton, D-Whitesburg, has introduced a bill that would rescind the portion of House Bill 2 that affects black lung cases. Wheeler said he would support Hatton’s bill if elected.

“There’s a lot of coal miners in this district, and I will look out for them if elected,” Wheeler said. “Some folks of my party are not as concerned about them, but I am.”

Pugh, a Democrat and the owner of a Pikeville jewelry store and apartments in Eastern Kentucky, said he also thinks physicians determining black lung cases should be independent from industry influence.

“A lot of miners traded their health for a living, and by-and-large most miners are very deserving of (black lung benefits),” Pugh said.

He said the main difference between him and Wheeler is his opponent’s support of Gov. Matt Bevin, a Republican.

“This election has turned into a referendum on the present administration,” Pugh said. “I anticipate a pretty good win Tuesday, and when that happens some of the fence-sitters on Matt Bevin’s team are probably going to re-think their position, and he’s going to lose some of his support.”

“And that’s what needs to happen. If the teachers and the public workers get out and vote in a big way ... some of the politicians are going to take notice,” Pugh said.

Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin announced he will run for governor again in 2019 at the end of his speech at the Republican Party of Kentucky's Lincoln Dinner in downtown Lexington.

A February poll by SurveyUSA found that 54 percent of Kentucky voters disapprove of Bevin’s job performance as governor. Only 27 percent approved and 20 percent were not sure.

The candidates are vying to replace Jones, a Democrat and now Pike County judge-executive, in Senate District 31, which includes Elliott, Lawrence, Martin, Morgan and Pike counties. Of the 80,000 registered voters in the district, about 52,000 are Democrats.

The district is still reeling from a sharp decline in coal production that began in 2012.

In Eastern Kentucky, coal production plummeted from about 50 million tons in 2012 to 17 million tons last year, according to data from the state Energy and Environment Cabinet. Coal employment dropped from more than 11,000 to less than 4,000.

Both candidates defined themselves as pro-coal, but said the region must search for new industries to diversify its economy.

Wheeler said he would push for expansion of the Mountain Parkway to a 4-lane highway all the way to Prestonsburg, while Pugh said he would work to lure new industries to Eastern Kentucky.

Both candidates said their opponents’ advertisements misrepresent their political views.

“My opponent has accused me of being for slashing pensions and charter schools — I’m for neither of those things,” Wheeler said. “I agree with the governor on many things. I agree with him on life, I agree with him on a right to bear arms, but I disagree with him on some things, and even some of the Republican leadership on things, like black lung and workers’ compensation.”

Pugh criticized Wheeler for alleging Pugh is beholden to U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

“One thing that Eastern Kentuckians have fought for as long as I can remember is being stereotyped,” Pugh said. “And I think that my opponents’ attempt to stereotype all Democrats is something evil, and comparing us all to Nancy Pelosi I think has really struck a nerve.”

Both candidates have also alleged wrongdoing during the campaign.

On Friday, the Kentucky Democratic Party filed a complaint with the Kentucky Registry of Election Finance alleging Wheeler violated campaign finance laws by not reporting campaign contributions to the registry. The complaint alleges the Republican Party of Kentucky paid for mailers supporting Wheeler, but neither the party nor Wheeler ever reported that expense to the registry.

Wheeler said he was not aware of any error in his financial report, but said he would investigate the issue and correct any mistakes or violations.

Wheeler has accused Pugh of not paying about $30,000 owed in state taxes.

Pugh said he has since paid all his taxes, and that any late taxes were paid with penalties and interest.

Wheeler had outraised Pugh by about $60,000 as of Feb. 18, the latest data available from the Kentucky Registry of Election Finance. Pugh had raised about $42,000, while Wheeler had raised just over $100,000.

An out-of-state Republican group called GOPAC also spent about $30,000 on advertising for Wheeler, according to a press release from Pugh’s campaign.

Fewer than one third of Wheeler’s donors live in the Senate district, Pugh claims, versus more than 70 percent of his donors.

“If the Republicans can come in here and spend all this money and can steal this senate seat, the rest of the state is watching, and Matt Bevin’s strength is just gonna grow,” Pugh said. “On the other hand, if we can beat his hand-picked candidate, his fence-sitting supporters are gonna dwindle.”

If elected, Wheeler said he would support Bevin on an issue-by-issue basis, but would stand up to the governor when it would serve Eastern Kentucky.

“I won’t sit here and deny that I supported Gov. Bevin the last time — so did 60 percent of people in this senate district,” Wheeler said. “Has he disappointed a lot of people? Sure he has, he’s disappointed me in some ways.”

Will Wright is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program made possible in rural Appalachia with support from the Galloway Family Foundation. Reach him at 859-270-9760, @HLWright.

Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin announced he will run for governor again in 2019 at the end of his speech at the Republican Party of Kentucky's Lincoln Dinner in downtown Lexington.

Will Wright is a corps member with Report for America, a national service project made possible in Eastern Kentucky with support from the Galloway Family Foundation. Based in Pikeville, Wright joined the Herald-Leader in January 2018 and reports on Eastern Kentucky.