CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — Donald Trump has delivered on a promised blowout win in the heart of Appalachian coal country, even drawing symbolic support from West Virginians who can’t vote for him until November.
Though Bernie Sanders defeated Hillary Clinton in the state, some conservative Democrats said they left the tops of their ballots blank in Tuesday’s primary, rebuking Clinton and instead pledging to support Trump in the fall.
The choice came down to coal, several voters said.
“I think Hillary was against the coal miners,” said 81-year-old Dorothy Burford, a Charleston retiree who left her Democratic ballot blank for president. “I think Trump has a better view on how we can get the coal miners back to work.”
Among those voting in West Virginia’s Democratic primary, about a third said they would support Trump over either Clinton or Sanders in November. That’s according to early findings from exit polls conducted for The Associated Press and television networks by Edison Research.
Trump, already the presumptive GOP nominee, anticipated the landslide in West Virginia and told people at a rally in Charleston last week that “you don’t even have to vote anymore.” He donned a hard hat from the West Virginia Coal Association and said he would bring back coal mining jobs.
“Save your vote for the general election, OK? Forget this one,” Trump said. “The primary’s gone. Save your vote for the general election in November. And we’re going to show you something, and you’re going to show me something.”
On the Democratic side, Clinton had struggled for support after saying during the campaign that her policies would put coal companies out of business. Both Clinton and Sanders have plans to put tens of billions of dollars toward revitalizing struggling coal communities.
West Virginia has largely fought the Obama administration’s regulations to curb climate change by limiting airborne carbon pollution from coal-fired power plants — limits that Sanders and Clinton support. The Supreme Court has put the rules on hold while legal challenges proceed.
Trump has echoed the state’s complaints against the Environmental Protection Agency, but otherwise hasn’t detailed how he would fight the many forces crushing West Virginia’s coal industry.
Regardless of how the regulations proceed, economic forecasts call for coal to continue to dwindle. West Virginia’s iconic industry is shedding thousands of jobs amid low natural gas prices, thinning coal seams, competition from other coal-producing regions, poor markets for coal used to make steel, and other factors.
It’s a matter of desperation for miners who cast votes Tuesday.
Chris Wilder, who has worked for nine years as an electrician doing repair work at coal mines, voted for Trump in Boone County.
The 30-year-old Madison resident said he received a layoff notice last week that was later postponed, and he was able to keep working this week. He said his future is unknown.
“My job’s hanging in the balance right now,” he said. “I’ve thought about leaving the state.”
Although Clinton’s delegate lead nationally is almost insurmountable, she has faced backlash in Appalachia for saying on television in March that 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.
While trying to make peace with the coal community in Williamson earlier this month, she was met with protests. Responding to an unemployed coal worker, she said she made a “misstatement.”
Still, Democratic voters like Justin Blackmon of Charleston viewed Clinton as the candidate with the most realistic views.
“With all the politicians and everybody that’s running, to be honest, I don’t agree with everything that they all say,” said Blackmon, a 31-year-old social worker. “But when you have this choice, it’s one of those things where you’ve got to pick the lesser of the evils, in a sense.”
The Mountain State lets independent voters cast either a Republican or Democratic ballot. West Virginia voters already set a new record of almost 101,000 ballots cast during the 10-day early voting period. Counties were reporting “good-to-high” turnout Tuesday, said Briana Wilson, spokeswoman for Secretary of State Natalie Tennant.
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