WASHINGTON – U.S. presidential candidate Hillary Clinton talked to steel workers in the Appalachian region about their economic struggles on Monday, as she tried to win over blue-collar voters in a part of the country where support for Republican Donald Trump is strong.
Turning her attention beyond the Democratic Party nomination fight to a possible match-up against Trump on Nov. 8, Clinton met union leaders and some of the 600 workers who were laid off last year when AK Steel Holding Corp. announced it would idle a furnace in eastern Kentucky.
She said job losses in manufacturing and the coal industry in the area had been a heavy blow.
“Talk about a ripple effect. It’s just devastating communities,” Clinton told workers around a table at an Italian restaurant in the town of Ashland.
She said she would look into whether assistance could be extended to Kentucky as it was to hard-hit workers after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in New York. “It makes sense to try to do it in a more targeted way in situations like this,” she said.
Clinton has pledged more than $30 billion to help regions that depend on coal, but her promise was overshadowed when she said in March that the country would “put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business.”
While the Republican presidential candidates focus on Tuesday’s primary contest in Indiana, Clinton launched a trip to Appalachia this week that will include events in Ohio and West Virginia.
She has a large lead over U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders for the Democratic nomination, and is making early moves to try to siphon support from Trump, who says his outsider campaign will succeed with struggling voters. He and other Republicans accuse President Barack Obama’s administration of waging a “war on coal” by imposing strict environmental regulations.
Unions typically back Democratic candidates, and union leaders have endorsed both Clinton and Sanders in the 2016 presidential race. But Trump’s pro-coal, anti-trade message has resonated with some blue collar union members.
The New York businessman won the Republican nominating contest in Kentucky in March, sweeping most of the counties in the economically struggling east of the state.
Parts of Appalachia, a region that spans multiple states across the Eastern United States, have struggled with poverty and job losses. West Virginia’s unemployment rate of 6.5 percent in March was well above the national rate of 5 percent, according to Labor Department data. Ohio’s unemployment rate was 5.1 percent, while the figure in Kentucky was 5.6 percent.
It will be an uphill struggle for Clinton in Appalachia if she wins the nomination.
Her husband, former President Bill Clinton, campaigned on Sunday in West Virginia, encountering protests from Trump supporters.
West Virginia last voted for a Democratic presidential candidate in 1996, when Bill Clinton was running for his second four-year term. He is the only Democrat who has won Kentucky since 1980.
Trump will take a leap toward winning the Republican nomination if he comes out ahead in Tuesday’s Indiana primary. His success in the race for the White House may well ride on the support of Republican evangelicals.
Top rival Ted Cruz planned stops to greet voters across the state on Monday, running into a group of Trump supporters in Marion, Indiana, who berated him. He deployed his wife, Heidi, and Carly Fiorina, the ex-candidate who Cruz has chosen as his running mate if he gets the Republican nomination, to a coffee shop and art gallery in Carmel, Indiana.
Cruz, who lags Trump in delegates to the Republican National Convention in July, told reporters on Monday he would stay in the race “as long as we have a viable path to victory.”
Trump on Monday criticized a trade deal signed by Bill Clinton, and threatened tariffs on goods from companies that move out of the United States in search of cheaper labor.
“People look for a job and they have to quit after four, five months,” Trump said on CNN. “I think that a lot of these people are going to join my campaign. I think a lot of the Bernie Sanders young people are going to join my campaign.”
Republicans plan to tie Clinton to what they say is an anemic economy under President Barack Obama. Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus on Monday cited data released last week that showed economic growth slipped in the first quarter to its slowest pace in two years.
“Struggling Americans will never get ahead under Hillary Clinton. They are going to keep getting taken to the cleaners,” Priebus said in an opinion piece for RealClearPolitics.