ASHLAND, Ky. — When President Bill Clinton rolled into the small Appalachian town of Ashland, Kentucky, in 1996, cheering crowds lined the streets. Local boy-turned-country music star Billy Ray Cyrus performed a special version of his hit, “Achy Breaky Heart” before nearly 20,000 supporters at a riverfront re-election rally.
Back then, this was Clinton country. Today, it looks an awful lot more like Trump town.
Hillary Clinton was met in Ashland on Monday by just a handful of supporters and a lone heckler, who shouted: “Go home, Hillary!” Later on, hundreds of protesters stood in pouring rain, waved Donald Trump signs and chanted “Kill-ary” as Clinton toured a health center in Williamson, West Virginia.
The unwelcome reception marks a striking political shift for the Clintons, who’ve long staked their electoral fortunes on working class white voters. Bill Clinton won the White House in 1992 by wooing Southern swing voters in places such as Kentucky, West Virginia and Tennessee, and his wife swept all three states in her primary run in 2008 against then-Illinois Sen. Barack Obama.
Eight years later, Trump’s connection with those voters could pose a threat to Clinton in the coal mining communities of Appalachia she visited on Monday, but also in parts of the Rust Belt and upper Midwest hit hard by the decline of domestic manufacturing.
“I am well aware of the politics in West Virginia,” she told MSNBC in Charleston, W.Va on Tuesday. “It’s gotten increasingly challenging for Democrats to be successful.”
As she increasingly focuses her efforts on the general election, Clinton is trying to replicate the electoral strategy that twice boosted Obama into the White House by concentrating on wooing young, minority and female voters.
Trump may afford them new opportunities to expand what’s known as the Obama coalition: Her aides calculate the billionaire’s penchant for controversy could put traditionally Republican-leaning states such as Georgia, North Carolina and Arizona into play.
“As an old duck hunter, I know the truth of the saying, ‘You gotta hunt where the ducks are at,'” said Paul Begala, who helped engineer Clinton’s victory in 1992. “President Obama understood this, as does Secretary Clinton.”
But at the same time, Clinton’s long history with the region means she and her husband aren’t willing to give up on places such as Ashland. Her campaign explained her swing through the coal-mining region as one that highlights her willingness to speak to the entire country — even those people who don’t support her bid. Aides say she’s unlikely to win either Kentucky or West Virginia in the primaries later this month or the general election next fall.
Democrats have lost support in Appalachia as the region has shed jobs in industries such as coal mining and as union membership has declined, said Democratic strategist Dave “Mudcat” Saunders. The leftward shift of the Democratic Party during the Obama administration on social issues, including gay marriage and gun control, hasn’t helped. “In those areas, it has become culturally unacceptable for a white male to admit he’s a Democrat,” Saunders said.
On Sunday, Bill Clinton was booed at an event in Logan, West Virginia. Before he arrived, the town’s mayor sent an email to West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin’s office, saying the couple wasn’t welcome to use city fire department facilities for their political events.
Clinton’s waning popularity in the region was further hurt by a remark she made in a March interview with CNN, when she said she would “put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business.” She was responding to a question about how her policies would benefit poor white people in Southern states.
“I can’t take it back and I certainly can’t get people who for politically reasons or personal reasons, very painful reasons, are upset with me,” said Clinton, who called the comment a “misstatement.” ”I’m going to do whatever I can to try to help.”
Outside her event, protesters weren’t buying.
“Hillary Clinton should be in prison,” said Dionne Collins, who backed Bill Clinton in 1992. “The only hope is Donald Trump.”
Associated Press reporter Catherine Lucey contributed to this report from Des Moines, Iowa.