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King Coal hasn't abdicated throne in Kentucky

Roger Alford, Associated Press

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) -- Kentucky's beleaguered coal industry, suffering under economic conditions that have cost the jobs of some 2,000 miners over the past year, isn't so feeble after all.

Just ask U.S. Rep. Ben Chandler, the Democrat from Versailles who was pummeled in last week's general election by coal-backed Republican Andy Barr in the 6th District.

Barr featured coal miners in his TV ads, talked incessantly about the Obama administration's "war on coal," and raked in campaign cash from wealthy coal executives angry about federal environmental regulations that have made it more expensive to unearth coal.

By the time the race was over, President Barack Obama had been vilified as an enemy of the mining industry, and Chandler had been portrayed as his surrogate in Kentucky. That turned out to be Chandler's undoing. Obama lost Kentucky overwhelmingly, and took Chandler down with him.

"I'm afraid President Obama was a little too heavy for us in some of the rural counties," Chandler told supporters in his concession speech Tuesday night.

Kentucky Coal Association President Bill Bissett said voters wanted to send a message to Obama.

"A lot of his disfavor here is connected directly to his anti-coal policies," Bissett said. "It is our hope that this message was heard by the president and that perhaps he changes his position."

King Coal, as the industry has been dubbed, still packs a powerful political punch. Industry executives have been flexing their muscles in a fight against increasing government restrictions on emissions from power plants and against regulatory constraints on aggressive mining methods like mountaintop removal.

Barr, a Lexington attorney, focused intently on the coalfield job losses that he blamed on the Obama administration's environmental policies, and he charged that Chandler supported those policies.

To some, it seemed odd that Barr made coal the major issue, because most of the state's mines are miles away in the more mountainous Appalachian region. But Lexington, the largest city in the district, is headquarters for several coal companies and has a large population of former miners who left the coalfields in search of work.

"There wasn't ever a time when we didn't feel like this was an important issue to focus upon," said Barr spokesman David Host. "The Obama administration's war on coal was a very salient issue throughout the 6th District."

Host said internal polling bore that out, especially after the campaign started running a TV spot featuring coal executive Heath Lovell in mining garb lamenting the decline of the coal industry. When Democrats responded by attacking Lovell, the polling showed Barr pulling ahead.

Financial reports filed with the Federal Election Commission showed coal executives gave at least $85,000 directly to Barr's campaign. They also helped finance independent groups that ran TV ads bashing Chandler and promoting Barr.

Chandler, a former attorney general who has served in Congress since 2004, insists that he's no enemy of coal. He called earlier this year for the EPA to ease up on regulations that have made it difficult to open or expand coal mines in Kentucky.

And the United Mine Workers of America endorsed Chandler for re-election. Steve Earle, a regional vice president for the UMWA, said Chandler's loss shows that King Coal remains a force to be reckoned with in Kentucky.

"They're a formidable adversary," Earle said. "I think they probably have more influence now than they ever did. Their money buys them a lot of influence."