FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Facing a backlash from Appalachian Democrats, Hillary Clinton's campaign on Monday tried to reaffirm her commitment to coal communities one day after declaring on national television she was going to "to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business."
Clinton's comments came during a Sunday night appearance on CNN, where she was asked a question about how her policies would benefit poor white people in southern states who generally vote Republican.
"I'm the only candidate, which has a policy about how to bring economic opportunity, using clean renewable energy as the key, into coal country. Because we're going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business," Clinton said. "We're going to make it clear that we don't want to forget those people."
Clinton was touting a plan she released last year that would set aside $30 billion to protect the health benefits for coal miners and their families. But her quip about putting coal miners out of business gave Republicans a perfect soundbite to use against her in states like Kentucky and West Virginia, where the party has made historic gains in coal communities in recent years by running against President Barack Obama's energy policies.
"I think every voter in the state of Kentucky needs to hear what she said," said Jonathan Shell, a Kentucky state representative who is leading Republican efforts to take control of the state House of Representatives in November, the last legislative chamber in the South still controlled by Democrats.
West Virginia state Senate President Bill Cole, the lone Republican running for governor, said of Clinton's comments that "it's maybe the best gift that anybody could have given a Republican running for office in West Virginia, no matter where, for statewide, for House race or Senate."
U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, from Kentucky, denounced Clinton's comments on the Senate floor as "callous" and "wrong."
The top three coal producing states of Wyoming, West Virginia and Kentucky all saw production declines of between 5 percent and 20 percent in 2015. In Ohio, site of Tuesday's Democratic presidential primary, coal production is down 22 percent. Democrats in those states tried to distance themselves from Clinton's comments.
"I was very disappointed to hear the comments that came out of the debate," said Alison Lundergan Grimes, Kentucky's secretary of state and a close friend of the Clinton family who received their endorsement during her unsuccessful challenge to McConnell in 2014. "My hope is she'll have a chance to clarify those comments, comments that as I said were completely out of line with personal conversations that I have had with her."
In West Virginia, where Democrats are trying to hang to the governor's mansion after losing the state legislature following the 2014 elections, two of the three Democratic candidates criticized Clinton's comments. Booth Goodwin, the former U.S. Attorney who prosecuted former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship, said he "absolutely disagreed" with Clinton. And Democrat Jim Justice, an Appalachian coal magnate, declared: "I will not support anyone who does not support coal."
Jeff Kessler, a progressive candidate supporting Bernie Sanders, echoed Clinton's message about providing new coalfield opportunities, but said he would've worded it differently.
Brian Fallon, Clinton's national press secretary, said Republicans were trying to twist Clinton's words. But later in the day, the Clinton campaign released a statement that appeared to walk back her comments that she would put coal miners and coal companies out of business.
"Coal will remain a part of the energy mix for years to come, and we have a shared responsibility to ensure that coal communities receive the benefits they have earned_and can build the future they deserve," she said.
Clinton has been dogged by a series of slip-ups in recent days. On Friday, she outraged LGBT and HIV/AIDS activists when she attributed early efforts to combat the disease to former First Lady Nancy Reagan. A day later, she prompted swift blowback from Sanders' team when she said she didn't know "where he was" when she was trying to get a health care overhaul through Congress in 1993.
His team produced a photo of Sanders standing right behind her at an event promoting the plan and a hand-written note from Clinton thanking him for his work on the issue.
Mattise reported from Charleston, West Virginia. Reporter Bruce Schreiner contributed reporting from Frankfort. Reporter Ken Thomas contributed reporting from Washington.