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Trump Catches Fire In Depressed Coal Region

Brash billionaire Donald Trump appears to be closing in on the Republican nomination for the U.S. presidential election despite the party leadership's furious efforts to prevent it.
Brash billionaire Donald Trump appears to be closing in on the Republican nomination for the U.S. presidential election despite the party leadership's furious efforts to prevent it.

GRUNDY, Virginia -- When Kristin Mullins graduated from high school 12 years ago, the expectation was that many of her classmates would work underground: digging in the rich coal seams of this eastern seaboard state, extracting coal destined for American steel mills, and pulling in upward of $50,000 a year, an enviable salary in hardscrabble Appalachia.

No more, she says.

"There's a few who want to do what dad done, and grandpa done, and great grandpa done, but all of them aren't like that," Mullins, a 30-year-old nurse who's currently out of work, says. "And even if you do have these [university] degrees, you can't necessarily come back home because there's no job here for you to come back here to, which all revolves around the coal industry bottoming out."

The coal industry is in decline and jobs are scarce, young people are moving away, and the man to whom people here in this Blue Ridge Mountain state are looking for answers is the unlikeliest of candidates: a flamboyant real-estate tycoon and reality-TV star from New York City named Donald Trump.

"I would call it angry desperation. They're mad and they're angry and they're also desperate for help and answers," Mullins says.

The contest to succeed two-term President Barack Obama in the White House has entered unfamiliar waters this primary season.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was widely believed to be a shoo-in for the Democratic Party nomination, but she's been dogged by perceptions about her trustworthiness and ties to Wall Street. That's given her opponent, independent Senator Bernie Sanders, room to pose a serious challenge, although Clinton won Virginia's March 1 primary handily.

But on the Republican side, the campaign has taken on a circus atmosphere. Trump, a brash billionaire who has said Mexico is sending its "rapists" to the United States, Muslims should be barred from entering the country, and he has a "great relationship with the blacks," is closing in on the Republican nomination despite the party leadership's furious efforts to prevent it.

And it's in working-class, mostly white places like here in Buchanan County, wedged between West Virginia and Kentucky, where his campaign for the White House has gained the greatest momentum.

Populated by what Brookings Institution demographer William Frey recently called "a nonurban, blue-collar and now apparently quite angry population," Grundy and the surrounding county feel left behind by the high-tech revolution and the waning of heavy industry in the United States.

"They're not people who have moved around a lot, and things have been changing away from them," Frey was quoted as saying in The New York Times, "but they live in areas that feel stagnant in a lot of ways."

'War On Coal'

In rustic Buchanan County, 94 percent of residents are white and pickup trucks are the vehicle of choice -- many carry bumper stickers declaring the primacy of the region's main industry through slogans like "Can't Keep The Lights On in America Without Coal From Virginia" or "Stop The War On Coal."

For generations, coal has been the lifeblood in the region known as Appalachia, which includes southwestern Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, and parts of Pennsylvania.

That's changed drastically in the past 20 years. A major consumer of coal, the U.S. steel industry, has struggled against cheaper imports, closing down smelters from Pennsylvania to Ohio and cutting the demand for metallurgical coal, the higher-grade coal found in Buchanan and surrounding areas.

In the past five years, a global supply glut has driven down coal prices drastically. The company that operates Buchanan County's largest functioning coal mine reported a steep fall in fourth-quarter prices, from $68.58 per ton in 2014 to $48.41 in 2015.

That's resulted in a dramatic exodus, particularly of young families, as people search for jobs. Buchanan County's population fell from 26,978 at the time of the 2000 Census to a reported 23,106 in 2014. Its school-age population has declined from around 9,600 in the late 1990s to fewer than 2,800 today.

In Buchanan County, where the mining industry is the largest private employer, the official jobless rate is around 10.8 percent. (Locals say the figure is even higher.) State figures show that Virginia had more than 11,100 coal-industry jobs in 1988; today, fewer than 2,800 remain.

WATCH: Virginia Resident Kristin Mullins Explains Why She Supports Donald Trump For President

Virginia Resident Explains Why She Supports Trump For President
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Blame for the county's misfortunes has largely been directed at one place: Washington, where the political atmosphere is deeply calcified and a Democratic presidential administration wary of the dangers of manmade climate change has aggressively pushed regulations curtailing operations at coal-fired power plants around the United States.

The result has been a rallying cry promoted heavily by Republicans and currently reflected in yard signs and bumper stickers accusing Obama of conducting a "war on coal." That has shifted voting patterns in and around Buchanan County, whose congressional district seat went to a Republican in 2011 for the first time in nearly 30 years.

"Everybody in the county that works, they don't mind taking a cut. They just want a job tomorrow. And the coal industry, with the political atmosphere in Washington? You get the point," says Joe Street, 69, who's run a business supplying conveyors and other heavy machinery to mines and related industries since 1981.

"Who's looking after the coal companies? Who's looking after the people in West Virginia? In southwest Virginia? Are they out to destroy the coal market? That's the attitude people are taking in Buchanan County," he says. "The mood in Buchanan County is, you know, are we going to have jobs next year?"

Trump Turnout

On March 1, one day after the owner of the county's largest coal mine announced it was being sold to a private-equity company, Buchanan County voters turned out in big numbers to vote in Virginia's statewide presidential primaries.

Clinton beat Sanders in the Democratic primary, 64 to 35 percent.

Trump walked away with nearly 70 percent of the Republican vote in the primary -- trouncing second-place Florida Senator Marco Rubio (nearly 14 percent) and third-place Texas Senator Ted Cruz (nearly 12 percent) -- his highest tally of any county in the country so far.

The victory surprised some pundits. Trump hadn't even campaigned in Buchanan County; the closest he came was on February 29 in Radford, Virginia, a three-hour drive to the east over a mountain road.

Trump has offered few proposals that might specifically address the economic challenges that Buchanan faces. The Trump campaign's website suggests southwest Virginia has absorbed "the brunt of the failed and misguided government policies for years," accusing Obama of waging an "outright war on coal [that] has uprooted and destroyed families and entire communities."

It's a message that resounded with people like Deborah Bostic, a 53-year-old employee of a local state agency whose husband hasn't been able to find work since losing his job at a surface-mining operation last fall.

Trump "seems to be one that wants to, you might say, take the bulls by the horns. He seems like he'll just jump right in there and get things done," Bostic says.

"He's a businessman and he's very successful, and maybe it's time that someone runs the country like a business," she says.

Earl Cole, who publishes a local newspaper called The Voice and hosts a weekly morning radio program called County Talk, says Buchanan's voters are desperate but they're also deluded. He blames years of Republican rhetoric that ties the coal industry's downturn to Obama's policies, and argues that the misfortune predates Obama. What's more, he says, White House regulations have targeted power plants that use so-called thermal coal, not the high-quality metallurgical coal that's mined in Buchanan.

"No matter who you put in office, in 90 days, he'll look like the same person who left office, so people just don't have any hope in our government," Cole says.

"They've sowed so much 'hate' in Obama that no matter what Obama does, people hate him."

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    Mike Eckel

    Mike Eckel is a senior correspondent reporting on political and economic developments in Russia, Ukraine, and around the former Soviet Union, as well as news involving cybercrime and espionage. He's reported on the ground on Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the wars in Chechnya and Georgia, and the 2004 Beslan hostage crisis, as well as the annexation of Crimea in 2014.