Sen. McConnell using Obama's unpopularity in Ky.

Published August 11, 2014 8:30AM (EDT)

HARLAN, Ky. (AP) — After 30 years in the Senate, Republican leader Mitch McConnell isn't terribly popular at home in Kentucky. Fortunately for him, President Barack Obama borders on politically toxic.

It's a fact McConnell hopes to ride to victory over Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes this fall for a new six-year term, and possibly a turn as leader of a majority Republicans hope to gain nationally.

So the 72-year-old lawmaker slyly concedes one point to his 35-year-old rival. "She'll be a new face, all right," he said repeatedly as he campaigned in coal-rich eastern Kentucky, blaming the president's environmental policies for the loss of 7,000 of mining jobs.

"But a new face for what? A new face who will do what Obama tells her."

It's a charge Grimes has long denied, emphatically and explicitly.

"I am not an empty dress. I am not a rubber stamp. And I am not a cheerleader. I am a strong Kentucky woman," she said on the night she captured the Democratic primary, intent on establishing her independence from Obama and her appeal among women who comprise more than half the electorate.

The two are thrown together in one of the country's most closely watched races, one that Republicans can ill afford to lose if they are to pick up the six seats nationwide they need to gain a majority in the new Senate.

It's also one of the most intense, given McConnell's standing in Washington, his record for triumphing in close races, a split inside his party and his middling approval ratings statewide.

To get this far, he had to fend off tea party-backed challenger Matt Bevin in a primary in which the candidates and their allies spent more than $17 million dollars combined.

Next, McConnell's allies tried to seize the initiative. Kentucky Opportunity Coalition, which backs McConnell, began a $5.6 million advertising campaign through Labor Day in the hopes of taking the shine off Grimes' successful campaign for the nomination.

The candidates have aired ads at lower levels so far, and the Senate Majority political action committee has spent more than $2 million supporting Grimes. Yet her side has been outspent so far on television by a nearly 2-1 margin.

In addition to countering the coal charge, she seized on McConnell's statement that it is "not my job," in response to a question asking what he would do to stimulate local economic development in a county with 14.3 percent unemployment.

More recently, Grimes' campaign aired one in a series of commercials showing her sitting next to a voter who poses a question to McConnell. An older woman, Ilene Woods of Lynch in Harlan County, asks the senator why he voted "two times against the Violence Against Women Act and against enforcing equal pay for women?"

Then silence, broken only by the sound of wind chimes, before Grimes turns to Woods and says, "I can never get him to answer this one, either."

This time, it was McConnell's turn to dispute the allegation.

He did so in a highly unusual move, airing a television commercial in which his wife, former U.S. Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, directly criticized his opponent. "Alison Lundergan Grimes' gender-based attacks are desperate and wrong," Chao says.

Grimes can scarcely hope to prevail if she doesn't win the votes of the state's women.

But McConnell's more recent target was the support of coal miners and their neighbors in eastern Kentucky, a region he split with his Democratic challenger in most recent race in 2008. That year, Obama got only 41 percent of the vote statewide, a number that dropped to 38 percent in 2012. More striking, Obama won only 58 percent of the Democratic votes in an unopposed primary in 2012 while uncommitted drew 42 percent

McConnell's last race was also well before the loss in eastern Kentucky of about 7,000 coal jobs and the several Environmental Protection Agency regulations, including one on emissions from power plants.

In addition to the impact of regulations, the recession and a drop in the price of natural gas have contributed to a reduction in the demand for coal and a loss of jobs.

But as McConnell's campaign bus stops in one economically distressed county after another, that's not the story he tells. Nor what Rep. Hal Rogers, the highly popular local congressman conveys — and it's not what some of those who turn out to hear them say they believe.

"Everybody knows Obama's new environmental regulation is the reason the coal jobs are gone," said Donnie Hill, 59, who lives in Corbin and works at a company that repairs and refurbishes mining equipment.

Standing a few feet away from a massive underground coal scoop, recently repaired at the company a cost of more than $100,000, Ronnie Frazier sums up the loss of jobs both at his own place of work and regionally.

"Obama. Regulation on coal, that's what's killing Kentucky," the 37-year employee says.

McConnell rarely mentions Grimes by name, preferring instead to campaign against Obama and "those people," an undefined group he says "are not the kind of people we have here in Kentucky."

Rogers, who regularly piles up enormous victory margins, is more direct.

"Obama wants Alison. Kentucky needs Mitch McConnell," he says.

By David Espo

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