Does Andy Beshear's win mean Kentucky is ready to move off coal?
The Democrat's gubernatorial campaign showed how a climate-conscious message can win in the state
Tuesday's election results brought some upsets, perhaps none more dramatic than Kentucky's gubernatorial race: In that deep red state, where President Trump's commitment to defending the coal industry helped him win by 30 points in 2016, a Democrat nonetheless just eked out a win for governor.
Kentuckians' understandable desire for economic prosperity, their association of that prosperity with coal, and the resulting perception that they must support Republicans to defend coal, have all formed a tightly-mortared political brick wall — one that's been nearly impossible for Democrats to break through. Tuesday's results certainly don't portend a collapse of that wall. But they do suggest some cracks are growing.
First, let's set this event in its proper context, so no one gets too excited. Democrat Andy Beshear, up until now Kentucky's Attorney General, and the son of the state's last Democratic governor, appears to have won by the thinnest of margins. His opponent and the current governor, Republican Matt Bevin, has yet to concede. Bevin is known for an exceedingly abrasive style, and has won no favors in Kentucky by picking fights with everyone from state public employees to journalists to judges. In particular, Bevin got into battles with the state's teachers, a popular constituency that Beshear eagerly embraced. Basically, Bevin went out of his way to make himself toxic despite the popularity of the GOP's national brand in the state, and Beshear still just squeaked by.
Nor did Beshear exactly go out of his way to yoke himself to the Democratic Party's climate warriors or the idea of a Green New Deal. When Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) a presidential candidate and one of the GND's biggest boosters, campaigned in Kentucky, Beshear notably didn't join him. When asked about climate change and the Democrats' enthusiasm for a GND, Beshear largely ignored that specific program and responded in more general terms about the need to diversify the state's energy portfolio with "as many renewables as possible."
What did happen was that Republicans made every effort to yoke Beshear to Democratic Party's national climate policy aspirations — relentlessly trying to link him to the GND itself and its prominent advocates. Furthermore, when asked, Beshear certainly didn't deny that greenhouse gases need to go away entirely by 2050. "Climate change is real," he told reporters. "You don't have to take my word for it, ask any farmer here in Kentucky or ask the U.S. military which is preparing for it each and every day."
Beshear also emphasized the need for economic justice in transitioning to renewables: "We've got to do it in a responsible way so that we don't price the poorest of the poor out of their electricity," he said, using his own history as attorney general battling electricity price hikes from utilities, as an example. Finally, he pointed out that battling climate change can provide new opportunities for jobs and economic activity, rather than simply nixing old ones. "Beshear was the only candidate that said managing climate impacts also means improving failing sewage and water infrastructure in rural Appalachia and investing in agricultural technologies to feed the world under changing conditions," reported WFPL radio in Louisville.
Alongside all this, Beshear "carried several counties in the eastern Kentucky coalfields that were traditional Democratic strongholds but have trended away from the party in recent years," Travis Waldron observed in HuffPost.
When she dug into the place of a Green New Deal in Kentucky politics earlier this year, In These Times' Rachel Cohen observed that the state is caught in a kind of liminal space.
Republican dominance in Kentucky is still a relatively new phenomenon, and there's a history in Kentucky politics of embracing big New Deal-style public investment programs as basic kitchen table efforts to bring everyone good jobs. "FDR was just a peg or two under Jesus Christ here," Tom Sexton, a left-wing Kentucky podcaster, told Cohen. "You still hear that from people in their 80s who are still very much tied to the Democratic Party of yesterday, including my family."
Most everyone in Kentucky also seems to understand that coal's days are numbered. If the need to tackle climate change doesn't do it in, competition from other energy sources like natural gas will — as a part of Kentucky's own energy needs, coal has dropped from 90 percent of generation to 75 percent in less than a decade.
What few know is what new businesses will replace coal's role in the state's economy. The industry does not employ that big a portion of the state's workers, but it tends to pay well, despite the backbreaking labor and myriad health problems it brings. Coal is also something that Kentucky can sell to the whole country and world, bringing in money that supports all the more geographically localized economic activity like grocery stores, or services like mechanics and hair dressers. Exactly how Kentucky could find itself awash in good jobs and broad prosperity on the other side of the green transition remains a fuzzy vision.
Nonetheless, Beshear is focusing on the right things to make that transition palatable: The overwhelming need to protect low-income Kentuckians, and the promise of a collective, bottom-up effort to rebuild the state and find new forms of abundant employment.
As a policy program, the Green New Deal is uniquely suited to achieving those goals. And despite the caricature of the GND as a fringe left program, its actual logic is much more in keeping with how everyday voters think about these problems. While many "moderates" still emphasize top-down, technocratic efforts to fight climate change by making fossil fuels more expensive (which will harm low-income Americans if not properly offset with aid), the GND invites Kentuckians and all Americans into the green shift as a populist, democratic project: Let us employ people and pay them well to shift every aspect of the state's energy system and infrastructure in a green direction, and then work together with government's creative power to find the new industries that will drive Kentucky's economy.
Beshear may not have openly embraced the GND. But his campaign laid the rhetorical groundwork for how the policy can be championed in Kentucky. And that campaign just ended with Beshear likely in the governor's seat.
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