“The miners in West Virginia and Pennsylvania, Ohio and all over, they’re going to start to work again,” Trump said. “We are not going to be like Hillary Clinton,” he said, taking aim at her ill-timed remarks last month for which she ultimately apologized.
Once upon a time in coal country -- states stretching along the Appalachian Mountains and the Marcellus Shale, a formation rich in underground resources like natural gas and coal -- the Clinton name reigned.
Back in 1992, then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton won counties in Appalachia with over 70 percent of the vote in the general election. Flash forward to 2016, and West Virginia, which holds its primary next Tuesday, eastern Kentucky, southwestern Virginia, and southern Ohio are home to the strongest pockets of Trump support in the country.
Trump, the glitzy billionaire from New York City, frequently mentions his popularity in the region on the campaign trail, and his message of bringing back factory jobs, revitalizing the coal industry and pushing for protectionist trade policies has excited white, economically depressed and underemployed blue collar voters in a geographic stretch from southern Pennsylvania to Kentucky.
Rupert “Rupie” Phillips, a Democrat and State delegate from Logan County, West Virginia, who voted for Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996, protested outside a Clinton event during the Democratic presidential candidate’s two-day swing through the region this week.
“It was with no disrespect to Bill. I just can’t support his wife,” Phillips told ABC News. “I can’t support anybody that doesn’t support coal.”
Clinton made waves across the region last month with her comments at a CNN Town Hall about the coal industry. As she explained her plans to reinvigorate the region’s industries, she made what she later called a "misstatement" when she said, "We’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business."
Bo Copley, a laid-off West Virginia miner, tearfully confronted Clinton at a Monday afternoon campaign event at the Williamson Health and Wellness Center. "How you can say you're going to put a lot of coal miners out of jobs and then come in here and tell us how you're going to be our friend. Because those people out there don't see you as a friend," Copley asked.
Trump’s bombastic style has been met with enthusiasm in a part of the country that is typically represented by folksy, Southern politicians. During Clinton’s swing through Appalachia, she was met by angry crowds booing and holding Trump signs.
“We’re used to a classic Southern gentleman’s approach, but I think folks at the moment are less interested in relationships than they are with strength and strong radical support of the coal industry,” West Virginia Republican Party chairman Conrad Lucas told ABC News.
Mike Stuart, co-chairman of the Trump campaign in West Virginia, said he believes Trump could win over 70 percent of the vote in a general election match-up against Clinton.
“We’ve never seen this type of enthusiasm before,” he told ABC News, adding that everyone working for Trump in the state is a volunteer.
In the nearly two decades since a Clinton was in the White House, Appalachia has undergone dramatic changes that make it ripe for Trump support.
Cheaper natural gas and tougher environmental regulations have sent coal-dependent Appalachian economies into a tailspin. Parts of West Virginia, Kentucky, and Virginia have some of the highest rates of unemployment, according to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, which is only exacerbated by the region’s opioid epidemic.
West Virginia has the highest drug-overdose death rate in the country, by far, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“I think people are frustrated,” West Virginia Democratic Party chairwoman Belinda Biafore said, adding that some voters have switched from the Democratic Party to Republican in order to vote for Trump.
Rick Abraham of Logan, West Virginia, used to work in the mining industry before coal companies closed doors in his hometown. A lifelong Democrat, Abraham changed his registration after the first Democratic debate over proposed energy policies. Now he's supporting Trump because he thinks he's the region's best bet for recovery.
“We’re coal miners,” Abraham said. “We don’t want to hear about windmills and solar panels. If they did become the source of energy, they’re just not going to be made here. They’re going to be made in China.”