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Bill Bishop / U.S. Election Atlas data. Republican candidates won most counties in Appalachian Kentucky and West Virginia in the 2014 House election, continuing a 14-year trend toward stronger GOP performance in the region. Click map to make it interactive. (Data for Virginia Appalachian counties was not available.)
Ask the Democratic Party leadership in Floyd County, Kentucky, about their county’s voting record and they’ll tell you: “When the 1972 election results came out, George McGovern had only won the state of Massachusetts and Floyd County, Kentucky.”
Times have changed.
Floyd County, along with virtually every coal-producing county in eastern Kentucky, southwestern Virginia, and southern West Virginia (the region known as Central Appalachia), now consistently vote for Republicans in federal and state elections. Across Central Appalachia, these midterm elections have brought more Republicans to historically Democratic seats, a 14-year trend.
There’s always a backstory. You can look at how race affected voting trends under the Obama presidency. You can also look at the convenient emergence of “pro-coal,” and “war on coal” rhetoric, coinciding with the Obama presidency, and you can look at how the decline of unions in Appalachia underwrote these stories.
Those conversations are the start of a real conversation about where Appalachia went to the right.
However, the first step is to challenge the narrative that a conservative monolith has prevailed in rural America since time immemorial, a narrative we see reproduced by our politicians and liberal and conservative media alike.
I set out to investigate how Appalachia became a Republican stronghold back in 2012, receiving several years of research grants to do so as a geography undergraduate at the University of California-Berkeley. For several summers, I conducted interviews in southern West Virginia.
During the summer of 2012, in counties such as Logan County, West Virginia, where nine out of 10 voters are registered Democrats, few would admit to voting for president Obama except behind closed doors. Signs saying “Fire Obama: End the War on Coal” littered the two-lane highways snaking their ways from eastern Kentucky to Virginia. As Obama became the target of widespread frustration amidst the tepid economic recovery and fears of massive layoffs at the mines, race became another point against the president.
In the Appalachian coalfields, blacks and whites have historically allied. In the early 20th century, the labor-hungry coalfields became a destination for African-Americans leaving the South. Labor organizing relied on interracial solidarity. By the 1970s, the United Mine Workers of America had anti-discrimination policies, including taking on racism and gender discrimination. In Barbara Kopple’s 1976 documentary, Harlan County, USA, a white miner sitting next to a black miner famously tells the audience, “When you come out of the mine, everyone’s face is black.”
At home it was a different story.
Like much of America, segregation in daily life continued well after legal integration. Some mining towns like Blair, West Virginia, were sunset towns. Residents will tell you: “Used to be black folks would make sure not to be in Blair after dark. Probably still is that way….” Coal company-owned towns were generally segregated. A Mexican-American son of a coal miner remembers: “The black people’s homes were the farthest up the holler, and ours were the next farthest, and then the white homes.”
These days, what remains is the culture of segregation, not union culture. Without the labor politics that once dominated the coalfields, racial dialog is over, particularly as historically African-American communities in the coalfields empty out with young people finding work elsewhere. As with much of America today, the legacy of racism in the coalfields is alive and well.
This place was primed for a political alliance to stoke latent prejudices.
“They called it COALition Romney.” After the 2012 election, campaigners explained how the West Virginia Republican Party had strategically partnered with the West Virginia Coal Association in the 2012 election. Their coalition, which required the historically Democratic Coal Association to break with its party, was critical for bringing not only a sweeping defeat of Obama in 2012, but a host of Republican state senators and representatives into the coalfields.
The West Virginia Coal Association had created these pro-coal groups several years before. Friends of Coal started in 2002, according to Sourcewatch.org, as a project launched and funded by the association. Initial efforts blossomed into spinoff groups in Kentucky, as well as a series of chapters of Friends of Coal in Virginia and Tennessee. Individuals even started Facebook groups and small grassroots in-person organizations calling themselves “Citizens for Coal” and other similar names. Industry efforts bused miners to Washington, D.C., to protest the Environmental Protection Agency, while apparently one-off grassroots efforts took this model and organized protests in front of environmentalists’ houses and offices. More than the mobilizations themselves, the sentiment that the coal industry, and by association, the miners themselves were under attack gained widespread support.
In the early 2000s, the Democratic Party was not the target. Environmentalists were. The pro-coal groups were pouring money into convincing people that environmentalists and the EPA were going to take their jobs and that every layoff was their fault. Even in 2008, as the state was already shifting Republican with rhetoric about coal and jobs starting to attack the Democratic Party, the several counties in West Virginia that voted for Obama were in the southern coalfields. Between then and 2012, Republican leadership collaborated with the coal association to create the message of an Obama created “war on coal.”
Stylized “Obama’s War-on-Coal” rhetoric easily fanned the flames of race baiting. In a region where the African-American population has dropped to near 3% in the last 40 years, it was not hard to make a case in Appalachia that a black president was interested in destroying Appalachian coal. And given that no Democrat party or effective local advocacy groups were pushing back against the message, broad accusations morphed into accepted truth. In reality, far more Appalachian coalminers lost their jobs in the Bush years than under Obama, and outside Appalachia coal jobs have more recently made a comeback. But in rhetorical warfare, talking points and attack ads trump political nuance and labor statistics. And when the economy is tanking, who doesn’t want someone to blame?
Public displays of aggression, from bumper stickers to speeches at rallies, blamed the president for all of their ills. It is still easy to find a small barbershop or check-out line at the grocery store in the coalfields where conversations damn this president for problems from layoffs to mine closures, to fears of taking everyone’s guns.
This rhetoric may hit closest to home for young miners and their families. Working in predominantly non-union operations, they have low job security, and the future of their industry is uncertain. Yet many young miners claim they are “proud to be scabs.” Resentment about the union among the young miners pairs well with an emerging Republican Party in the region whose leadership is generally young (the youngest state legislator was elected last year in West Virginia – an 18-year-old Republican woman). This new party offers a change, a break from business as usual. Business as usual is the union, the Democratic Party and poverty.
Older miners, especially retired ones, however, still strongly support the unions and are stalwart Democrats. “We’re talking radical politics,” said Terry Steele, an old United Mine Workers of America miner. “The union was the best thing that ever happened to this region! And now all we won is falling away,”
A Republican campaigner privately admitted after the 2012 election that “the goal was to not let the old folks know that there was an election.”
The union suffered crushing defeats during a series of strikes in the 1990s, facing off against new vehemently anti-union corporations like Massey Energy. Mechanization and extensive surface mining has been displacing workers from the coal industry since its inception. Requiring smaller workforces, these practices aided the power of anti-union corporations that fought UMWA strikes through the 1980s and ’90s. Climaxing in the infamous 1989-90 Pittston Coal strike in Virginia, the United Mine Workers of America has since taken a back seat on politics as they hold onto a fraction of their former jobs. Those few jobs now pay the many pensions the union maintains, forcing the organization into a conservative and protectionist stance. Without the leadership of the union as a politically progressive institution, coal industry advocates with their “pro-coal” rhetoric and the Republican Party have filled the leadership void.
“People in Floyd County just don’t like Obama,” said the chairman of the Floyd County, Kentucky, Democratic Party. “If it were Hillary, it would have been a totally different story.”
That was before the Obama administration’s 2013 regulations regarding carbon dioxide emissions, a policy that will affect coal markets. Hilary did quite well in 2008 across the region. Bill Clinton was, and still is, wildly popular. Many differences distinguish Obama from the Clintons. The racial difference, however, is unavoidably key. The presidential election in 2016 will tell if the politics of the region will rebound to the Democrats or not.
What is clear: Democrat Senate nominees Alison Grimes and Natalie Tenant ran away from even the most tangential relationship with Obama in their respective races in Kentucky and West Virginia. Grimes, an Obama delegate to the 2012 Democrat National Convention, refused to admit she voted for the president. If the political distancing from Obama helped the candidates, it is difficult to measure. In rural Kentucky Grimes performed 7% worse than Obama did in 2012. Inarguably Republicans are on the rise in these coal field states. Both West Virginia’s state House and Senate switched to Republican control in November 2014; Kentucky’s Republican control of the state Senate increased, though Democrats held on in the Kentucky House. And the memory of George McGovern in Floyd County appears to be fading.