It was almost subliminal. About halfway through the primary election's most widely run ad about coal from U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, the camera settles on the T-shirt of a faceless McConnell supporter.
The shirt features President Barack Obama, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and, between them though she is not mentioned in the ad, Democratic Senate nominee Alison Lundergan Grimes.
Above the three Democrats is a quote attributed to Reid: "Coal makes us sick." A citation describes Reid as majority leader and "chief Grimes recruiter." The ad closes with a conversation between McConnell and a supporter. "We're gonna fight back in this war on coal," McConnell says. "Damn right."
The fight over coal — already at the heart of the senate battle between McConnell and Grimes — is about to hit a pitched new phase Monday when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency releases its new draft regulations on emissions from the nation's coal-fired power plants.
Since entering the campaign, Grimes has endeavored to convince voters she is a pro-coal Democrat, using the issue to put space between her and an unpopular president from the same party who has been routinely vilified in Kentucky for his "war on coal."
When the EPA issued new rules last fall on carbon pollution for new power plants, Grimes called on Obama "to do the right thing," saying she was "deeply disappointed" by the rules, which Republicans and coal industry officials said were part of Obama's stated goal of bankrupting the coal business in an effort to fight climate change.
"Coal keeps the lights on in Kentucky — plain and simple — and I will not stand idle as overreaching regulation adversely impacts jobs and middle-class families," Grimes said at the time.
But as McConnell works overtime to try to tie Grimes to Obama in voters' minds, he is using coal and Grimes' fundraising connections to send the message that a vote for Grimes is a vote for Reid, Obama and a death sentence for the coal industry.
Republicans see this week as a confluence of opportunity to target Grimes, with the proposed regulations coming out Monday and a planned Grimes fundraiser with Reid in Washington, D.C., on Thursday.
"Alison Lundergan Grimes' campaign is fueled by unapologetically anti-Kentucky forces, and they're gathering into a perfect storm this week," Allison Moore, McConnell's campaign spokeswoman, said. "The president she was a delegate for and the environmentalists bankrolling her campaign have teamed up for an assault on Kentucky, and she'll be raising money with the majority leader who says 'coal makes us sick.'"
The Grimes campaign said Friday that it was planning "an aggressive, multiplatform push to continue driving Alison's outspoken advocacy for Kentucky coal jobs and families."
"Alison has been incredibly vocal and outspoken in her disagreement with President Obama's energy policy," Charly Norton, Grimes spokeswoman, said in an email. "This administration has taken direct aim at Kentucky's coal industry, crippling the commonwealth's largest source of domestic energy and threatening thousands of jobs."
The McConnell campaign ran its coal ad to the tune of a six-figure buy. McConnell's outside money allies — Kentuckians for Strong Leadership and the Kentucky Opportunity Coalition — spent more than $2.5 million on ads focusing just on coal.
Beginning Tuesday, Kentuckians for Strong Leadership will again run a radio ad around the state titled "Soldiers," which is among the most direct in tying Grimes to Reid and Obama, saying Grimes is raising "big bucks" with Reid and supported Obama as a delegate to the Democratic convention. "Grimes was a Barack Obama delegate, supporting him even after he declared war on our coal communities," the narrator says in the ad.
Additionally, Kentucky Opportunity Coalition kicks off a $4.66 million summer ad blitz this week, and it's a safe bet that coal will factor prominently, at least in the beginning.
Scott Jennings, a former top aide to McConnell and senior adviser to Kentuckians for Strong Leadership and Kentucky Opportunity Coalition, said Saturday that "this week offers a real glimpse at just how liberal and out of touch Grimes really is, and we intend to magnify her left-wing ideology as much as possible."
Grimes' planned fundraiser with Reid gives Republicans added ammunition this week.
Reid is "not doing this behind closed doors. He's been very vocal about it. Just Google his name and 'coal,' and you'll get a lot of quotes," said Bill Bissett, president of the Kentucky Coal Association. "It's very concerning that anyone who is talking about their support of coal would be connected to him."
The effect of the messaging from McConnell and his allies appeared to be significant when primary voters went to the polls May 20.
The counties where Grimes underperformed, hovering around 65 percent in some places against unknown candidates, and McConnell had his best numbers were in coal country, both in the western and eastern parts of the state.
McConnell's campaign thinks the new EPA regulations give the senator an opening to go on offense.
As last week ended, McConnell's campaign arm came out swinging, noting that Frances Beinecke, president of the National Resources Defense Council, whose research assisted the administration in writing the new regulations, donated $1,000 to the Grimes campaign.
The Grimes camp has been quick to remind reporters that McConnell received $2,000 from an anti-coal Texas businessman.
In his official capacity, McConnell launched a separate salvo, announcing he would introduce legislation this week to stop Obama's "national energy tax."
"From what we have heard, this is just the latest attempt at a national energy tax by the Obama administration and yet another assault on Kentucky coal jobs and the Commonwealth's economy," McConnell said in a statement. "It will not only have a negative impact on Kentucky coal jobs and economy but will result in an increase in our utility rates, one of our state's competitive advantages."
McConnell's two-pronged attack comes on the heels of a report by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has endorsed McConnell and run ads on his behalf, that estimated the new regulations could cost the nation as much as $50 billion and 224,000 jobs annually.
The chamber's Institute for 21st Century Energy report specified that the region which includes Kentucky, Mississippi, Tennessee and Alabama could hemorrhage as much as $2.2 billion and 21,000 jobs every year until 2030.
Democrats and environmental groups have pushed back on those numbers, noting that the proposed regulations have not been released and that previous warnings about protecting the environment at the expense of business had not come to pass.
In his weekly radio address, Obama said the proposed rules, once in effect, would prevent 100,000 asthma attacks and 2,100 heart attacks in the first year due to a decrease in air pollution.
"Now, special interests and their allies in Congress will claim that these guidelines will kill jobs and crush the economy," Obama said. "Let's face it, that's what they always say."
The president said that "every time America has set clear rules and better standards for our air, our water and our children's health, the warnings of the cynics have been wrong."
"These excuses for inaction somehow suggest a lack of faith in American businesses and American ingenuity," Obama said.
Grimes hasn't publicly wavered from saying she is committed to protecting coal jobs, going as far as to try to turn the tables by pointing out that Kentucky's massive job losses in the industry have happened on McConnell's watch.
Bissett said the inference that McConnell has not fought for those jobs is "absolutely untrue and unfair."
Regardless, Grimes will be in the spotlight this week as she works, like she has since entering the race, to convince pro-coal voters she is one of them and will not, as she said on primary night, "answer to the president no matter who he or she might be."
"In the U.S. Senate, Alison will spare no effort to persuade Washington's policy makers that a coherent, rational national energy policy must have a meaningful, long-term place for coal," Norton said Friday.
"As Kentucky's next senator, Alison will fight for federal investment in clean coal technology and fiercely oppose anyone who works against Kentucky's coal industry."
Sam Youngman: (502) 875-3793. Twitter: @samyoungman. Blog: Bluegrasspolitics.bloginky.com.