There are some political races in America—though admittedly not many—that are classic examples of a healthy democracy in action. Races where candidates engage in intelligent and thorough policy debates, commonly field probing questions from reporters and answer with great detail, and have face-to-face conversations with voters to hear their concerns.
Kentucky’s US Senate race between Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell and Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes has not turned into one of these races, and looks unlikely to join those ranks any time soon.
Though the two candidates have traded barbs since Grimes entered the race last July, they kicked into high gear after McConnell disposed of Tea Party challenger Matt Bevin in the May 20 primary. Or perhaps I should say low gear, considering the absurdity of a campaign that has largely consisted of trolling via press releases and tweets, infrequent and highly scripted public events, dodging reporters’ questions (when not trying to arrest them), and negative attack ads from outside groups—the total of which from all parties is estimated could reach $100 million in little ol’ Kentucky.
If that’s not enough, it often seems like the two can’t agree on which candidates are running in the race. McConnell has mentioned President Obama and Senator Harry Reid just as much as Grimes, if not more so, attempting to tie her to unpopular national Democrats and make the race a proxy war against them. On the other hand, Grimes’s campaign has tried to make this a trace between McConnell and not-McConnell. Though Grimes has repeatedly touted her support for raising the minimum wage and equal pay, she has been reluctant to go in depth on many issues and risk giving ammo to McConnell’s seemingly endless supply of attack ad money. She’s banking on being the safe and uncontroversial alternative McConnell, whom several polls have shown is just as unpopular as Obama in Kentucky.
However, there is one issue that both candidates have talked about ad nauseam, with rhetoric that often borders on the absurd. That issue is coal and EPA regulations of the industry, as both candidates are falling over each other to convince voters that they love Kentucky’s black mineral of heritage the most, and hold the president’s EPA in the lowest regard.
Though coal mining employs less than 1 percent of Kentucky’s workforce, a decade of heavy public relations spending by the industry has gone virtually unchallenged, turning coal and its miners into mystical figures of state heritage rivaling basketball, bourbon and horses. Or at least that’s what most politicians in both parties believe, as they’ve joined together in chorus to denounce the EPA’s “War on Coal” that they say is the cause of the industry’s dramatic decline and Kentucky’s impending doom. Little mention is paid to the larger truth behind this decline: coal’s inability to compete in the free market with the flood of cheap natural gas, as well as a decreasing supply of easily mined coal reserves that have made it less cost-efficient.