Politics

Is Hillary Clinton Launching Her General Election Campaign in Appalachia?

Tour through Kentucky, West Virginia and Ohio looks beyond primaries

Hillary Clinton speaks with local steel workers and civic leaders in Ashland, Ky. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Williamson, W.Va. — Deep in a difficult conversation with an unemployed West Virginia coal worker, Hillary Clinton said, "I'll be honest with you, a lot of people said just don't go to West Virginia … go to California, there are lot more votes there." Yet the Democratic front-runner spent two full days this week moving from Kentucky to West Virginia to southern Ohio, a tour through a part of the country that has long since given up voting for Democrats.  

"I want to be a president for all of America," Clinton told MSNBC's Andrea Mitchell in an interview Tuesday. "I'm not writing off any part of America. I wanted to be here."  

Driving along the Robert C. Byrd Freeway in Appalachia might be the last place you would expect a general election campaign to begin.  

But with Republican pacesetter Donald Trump seemingly wrapping up the GOP race in Indiana , Clinton has shifted her campaign toward the issues and strategies she will emphasize in November.  

On Monday, she spoke to laid-off steel workers about trade protection and to coal workers and railroad employees about economic revitalization. Tuesday brought a panel discussion in Charleston, West Virginia, about opioid addiction, then a speech in Ohio about the prospects for working families, with a particular emphasis on rural communities.  

"Our country succeeds only when working people everywhere succeed, not just in big cities but in the hills of eastern Kentucky, right here in southern Ohio, deep in the coalfields of West Virginia, the small towns that dot this part of America," she said in her speech in Athens, Ohio. "We need to break down all the barriers holding people back, not just here in Appalachia but across America."  

She appeared on stage with Ohio Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown, who is said to be on her shortlist for vice president. Her speech did not mention her opponent for the Democratic nomination, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. She saved her attacks for her potential general election nemesis Trump over his economic plan.

The Political Calculus

   

Clinton's swing through Appalachia makes "a heck of lot of sense" at this point, said Mike Berman, a Democratic strategist and president of The Duberstein Group, a lobbying firm.  

“I think it’s pretty clear now that she’s going to be the nominee so why give up all this time between now and the eighth of June or the conventions when you could actually cover a lot of the country and perhaps not have to go back later," Berman said.  

[Related: Hillary Clinton Is Too Big to Fail] With a primary in West Virginia on May 10 and a Kentucky contest May 17, Clinton still has to consider Democratic delegate counts. A poll released Tuesday showed Sanders leading Clinton 45 to 37 percent in West Virginia, with 18 percent undecided in the open primary.  

But at this point, Clinton is far ahead in pledged delegates, a lead that grows even larger when factoring in the overwhelming support of party leaders and elected officials known as superdelegates.  

Clinton was careful Tuesday not to dismiss Sanders. "He has every right to finish out this primary season," she said in the interview with Mitchell, but quickly added, "The facts are pretty clear. I'm 3 million votes ahead of him, 3oo pledged delegates ahead of him. We're going to unify the party, we're going to have a great convention."

Protest in Appalachia

   

When Clinton first arrived in Kentucky on Monday she met a smattering of protesters angry about a comment she made during a CNN town hall back in March: "We're gonna put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business." The crowd was bigger and rowdier at her next stop in Williamson, West Virginia , shouting "go home" as she arrived at a local medical center.  

Inside her meeting in Williamson, she faced sharp questioning from Bo Copley , a laid-off coal worker struggling to support his family. He questioned how she could support closing coal mines when it meant financial hardship for so many families. Clinton stressed that the job losses were inevitable, and that she had created a plan for supporting displaced workers.  

[Related: Clinton Feels the Heat in Coal Country] "When we get in the general election, I will take my case to the people of West Virginia and America, no matter who's the Republican nominee, because at some point, you know, people have to tell you what they're actually going to do, not just stoke up feelings and anger," she said.  

Clinton mentioned Bo Copley again, the next day as she addressed the crowd at Ohio University in Athens. "Bo was really clear," she told them. "He's a Republican. He is not voting for me. But we need to do a better job for Bo and his family and families like his across Appalachia and America."  

[Related: The Unemployed Coal Worker Who Confronted Clinton]

Hillary Clinton bought $25 worth of Girl Scout cookies at a campaign stop in Ashland, Kentucky. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Hillary Clinton bought $25 worth of Girl Scout cookies at a campaign stop in Ashland, Kentucky. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Not everyone she met was opposed to her campaign.  

"We're original Hatfields from the Hatfields and McCoys. That's the first thing I want to tell you."  

That's how Victoria Rowe, a lifelong resident of rural Mingo County started an interview alongside her sister Linda Van Meter. The sisters were standing outside the Williamson event in the rain, hoping to catch a glimpse of Clinton.  

Sporting a button from her 2008 primary campaign against now-President Barack Obama, Van Meter said her son had been calling to see if she would be able to get inside the event. "He has called me three times yesterday. He has already called me twice today," she said.  

Her sister said she didn't think the region could count on coal any more. "I think through the federal government there will be more programs like this, and I think that's one of the keys to our economy, especially in towns who have lost so many jobs," Rowe said.  

That's the vision Clinton stressed throughout her swing through Appalachia. She said she didn't mind that she was met with protest.  

"This is a particularly difficult time in our country's history," she said. "We've got to have these candid conversations."  

Bridget Bowman contributed to this report.

Contact Lesniewski at nielslesniewski@cqrollcall.com and follow him on Twitter @nielslesniewski.

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