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Can A Liberal Democrat Win A Statewide Election In Kentucky?

Courtesy Sellus Wilder

When they're running for statewide office, Kentucky Democrats and Republicans usually have something in common: They embrace the state’s coal culture and attack federal regulations of the signature industry.

But Sellus Wilder, a Democrat running a longshot campaign for U.S. Senate this year, wants his party to stop pandering.

“We never have honest conversations on the state of the coal industry,” Wilder said. “Environmental regulation has contributed to the decline of the coal industry, but it’s hardly the most important factor.”

Wilder is running in the crowded seven-person field for the Democratic Senate nomination. The winner will face Sen. Rand Paul in November.

The man to beat in the primary is Lexington Mayor Jim Gray, who, according to his campaign, raised $1.75 million in the first quarter of this year — $1 million of which he loaned to the cause.

Wilder said Gray is avoiding progressive policies and that Kentucky politicians generally focus too much on EPA regulations of the coal industry.

“People in Kentucky aren’t stupid," he said. "They know that they’ve been sold the same story over and over again, and that their lives haven’t been getting any better.”

In last year’s gubernatorial race, Democratic candidate Jack Conway touted his record as attorney general suing the EPA for its regulations of the coal industry. In the 2014 race for Senate, Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes similarly framed herself as a pro-coal candidate.

And for years, Democratic elected officials — especially, but not exclusively, ones outside of Kentucky’s major metropolitan areas — have run against coal regulation.

Wilder said Democratic politicians haven’t made an effort to “challenge the paradigm.”

“Nobody’s even tried to run a campaign that actually puts coal mining communities and the people in them above industrial profits," he said.

Wilder is getting attention for his position. He's garnered the endorsements of activist group Kentuckians for the Commonwealth and philanthropist Christy Lee Brown, who co-hosted a fundraiser for him in Louisville last week.

But the political realities of running a pro-environment campaign in Kentucky are steep, according to Steve Voss, a political science professor at the University of Kentucky.

“The typical voter is not an ideologue and isn’t looking for grand, sweeping solutions," he said. "They just want people to solve problems in a practical way."

Gray has run a quiet campaign so far. In a late-February interview with Kentucky Public Radio, he said the coal industry is “in a major transformation.”

“That means that a really meaningful and intentional and deliberate effort to diversify the economy is essential,” he said.

Gray said he supports the Shaping Our Appalachian Region initiative, a program designed to bring awareness to the region's future co-founded by Republican U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers and former Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear, to help in those efforts.

Brown, the Louisville philanthropist, has in the past held sway over candidates' fortunes via a strong network of donors, said she’s supporting Wilder because of his focus on the environment.

“My hope is that it will begin to solidify a progressive, healthy voice for Kentucky," she said. "Because I think it’s been desperately lacking. It is what will empower those of us who have become not so inspired by the political system.”

The Democratic primary is on May 17. Voters have to register by April 18 to participate.

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