ASHLAND, Ky. — The steel mill here shut down recently, costing 600 jobs, as China dumps cheaper steel on the market. The coal mines have been slowing down production for years as renewable energy gains traction. And Democrats who used to win elections in this patch of Appalachia are losing to Republicans.
So when Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton arrived here Monday for an event at a local restaurant, she drew protesters.
“Coal and steel are the lifeblood here,” said Jose Gonzalez, one of a small group of protester to arrive. “It kills me that people from this area are like, ‘Yeah, Hillary.’”
The criticism grew more intense later in the day after Clinton crossed the West Virginia line to visit a medical facility treating coal miners suffering from black lung disease, part of what she calls her “Breaking Down Barriers” tour.
Clinton was greeted by a throng of angry protesters, standing in the pouring rain and booing as she arrived at the facility in Williamson.
Clinton has endured criticism in Appalachian states for her push to replace coal with renewable energy. In November, she released a plan to help coal communities rebuild with initiatives to promote small businesses, invest in education and support miners with black lung.
But the conversation Monday focused on words she spoke at a March town hall on CNN: “We’re gonna put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business.”
Bo Copley, an unemployed coal miner who said he was a registered Republican, asked Clinton about the comment.
[Related: How an Unemployed Coal Worker Ended up Across the Table From Hillary Clinton] Clinton said her words were taken out of context, but she realizes that her remark may hurt her with voters in West Virginia and Kentucky.
“I put forth a $30 billion plan,” Clinton said. “We can’t just leave people like you and your family behind. That’s not how I’m made, and it’s not what I’ll do. And so I made one misstatement, you know, and I apologized for that. It was not meant to be taken the way that it was taken.”
“I’m totally at peace with what I want to do and I understand the anger, and I understand the disappointment that is being expressed given what’s been going on,” she continued. “I’ll be honest with ya,a lot of people said just don’t go to West Virginia … go to California, there are lot more votes there. They vote in June.”
“Whether you vote for me or not, whether people yell at me or not, it’s not going to affect what I’m going to try to do to help,” Clinton said.
An Appeal to Blue Collar Workers
Clinton’s visit to the region came a week ahead of West Virginia’s May 10 primary, but in many ways, her message was aimed at a general election audience, particularly blue collar voters who may be wary of her positions on trade and energy.
The earlier event in Kentucky was a small gathering, reminiscent of her early stops in Iowa or New Hampshire. The event even brought the return of what was affectionately dubbed the “Scooby van,” when Clinton traveled from her home in the New York to Iowa more than a year ago.
Inside Alma’s Italian Cafe, Clinton assured a gathering of steel workers that she would go after China and other actors engaged in dumping, in addition to establishing a “trade prosecutor” to get out in front of problems.
“We got into a pattern that I don’t agree with where we waited for a problem to happen,” Clinton said.
She also discussed her plan for reviving coal communities, including a “Marshall Plan” effort to retrain coal workers for new jobs.
Tim Gibbs, the president of the Ashland Alliance, which is a local chamber of commerce, said jobs lost when the AK Steel mill shut down earlier this year and when coal production declined, are not replenished with anything comparable, even when jobs do come to the region.
“It’s very difficult to recruit jobs of this quality in this region, and it’s our legacy,” Gibbs said during the meeting with Clinton.
One of the unemployed AK Steel workers, Shawn Burnham, went so far as to buy a camper and make the drive north to Columbus, Ohio, in search of work.
Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul has been among the public officials active in working on the AK Steel issue, meeting with Ashland Mayor Chuck Charles, as well as Gibbs last month.
From Blue to Red
This part of Kentucky was once reliably Democratic. But the shift to the Republicans, while trailing behind the South, has been close to complete.
While West Virginia and Kentucky went for Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996, both states have voted Republican in the four presidential elections that followed. On Sunday, the former president faced hecklers as he spoke in rural Logan County, W.Va.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s 2014 re-election campaign dedicated considerable resources to Eastern Kentucky, in which he easily defeated the state’s Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes in counties that had not traditionally voted for Republicans.
Grimes was present for Clinton’s event Monday.
Josh Holmes, who oversaw the McConnell campaign effort, pointed out that the same held true in the 2015 gubernatorial race in which Republican Matt Bevin was elected.
“We focused like a laser on coal country Democrats because we believed the Democratic Party had completely abandoned them economically and culturally, and the only reason they voted [for the Democrats] was historical practice. If presented a choice on issues and values instead of party affiliation, they would be with us,” Holmes said. “In the end, they were.”