MADISONVILLE — With U.S. Sen. Rand Paul at his side, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell took his coal bus tour to Western Kentucky Wednesday, railing against the Obama administration and defending his wife against criticisms that she is anti-coal.
McConnell was joined by Paul at three stops, but it was McConnell's other top surrogate — wife and former U.S. Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao — who reporters mostly wanted to ask about after each event.
Chao has moved front and center in the U.S. Senate race between McConnell and Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes in recent days, first after she was the subject of discriminatory comments by a Democratic strategist, then as the star of McConnell's latest television ad, and most recently after a news report surfaced about Chao's service on the board of a charity that is trying to shut down coal-fired power plants.
McConnell was defiant as he was asked whether Chao would resign from the board of Bloomberg Philanthropies, saying, "Of course not — why should she?"
"She's pro-coal. She's in the same place I am on the NRA," McConnell said. "It's a big charitable board, but it's also got Jeb Bush on it. You think he's a Democratic sympathizer?"
"She's not going to resign," he said. "They do a lot of good things. They do some things she does not approve of, and she doesn't approve of their efforts in the coal industry."
The charity, which was formed by former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, pledged in 2011 to spend $50 million over four years on the Sierra Club's "Beyond Coal" campaign with the goal of eliminating one in three coal-fired power plants by 2020. Chao joined the board in 2012.
The Grimes campaign has remained largely mum on Chao, but other Democrats have seized on the latest development, sending a letter Tuesday to the Kentucky Coal Association demanding that the group call for Chao's resignation from the board of Bloomberg Philanthropies.
The letter, sent by House Speaker Greg Stumbo and other Frankfort Democrats, was rebuffed Wednesday by the coal association, which said it is "supportive" of Chao's involvement.
"Since her appointment, her involvement as a proven pro-coal person has given Kentuckians someone 'on the inside' of these boards who can express our views and explain the social and economic harm that has been caused in the past," wrote Bill Bissett, the association's president.
McConnell again cautioned the Grimes campaign about the dangers of targeting his family, recalling past cases when Democrats have attacked Chao's Asian ethnicity and he has gone on to win.
On Wednesday, McConnell recalled the 2001 Fancy Farm picnic, where Nikki Patton, the daughter of former Gov. Paul Patton and then-chairwoman of the Kentucky Democratic Party, said McConnell had "passed up some good Kentucky pork to chow down at the Chinese money buffet."
"Look, attacking Elaine is not new," McConnell told the Herald-Leader in Hartford on Wednesday morning. "We've seen that before. It hasn't worked in the past, and it won't work this time."
On the stump, McConnell didn't veer from the same message that he took to Eastern Kentucky last week: that President Barack Obama is trying to destroy coal, and electing McConnell as majority leader of the Senate is the only way to stop him.
But the senator did add a warning specific to the state's western coalfield, which has not suffered the deep job losses found at mines in Eastern Kentucky. They're next, he said.
"I have a prediction for you: The administration's headed your way if we don't stop them," McConnell said. "Because they don't want to just destroy coal in Eastern Kentucky. They want to destroy coal everywhere. The EPA is determined to finish us off."
Paul hammered a similar message, warning that "there is no hope for coal" if Grimes is elected and votes to keep current U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in place.
"The president promised in 2007 when he ran for the office that he would bankrupt coal, and he's doing his damnedest to do it," Paul said in Greenville. "He doesn't care about jobs in Kentucky. He won't travel to Kentucky."
Flirting with a 2016 presidential bid and fresh off a trip to the early-voting state of Iowa, Paul brought his increasingly large bull's-eye along with him, drawing the attention of the Democratic National Committee, which recounted that in 2008, Paul said coal "is a very dirty form of energy."
"Rand Paul's credibility is shot, and now Mitch McConnell is calling on Paul to help him pull the wool over Kentucky voters' eyes," DNC spokesman Ian Sams said. "We know the facts: Mitch McConnell is deeply unpopular, and Rand Paul can't keep his story straight from one day to the next. It's no wonder Kentuckians are souring on the state's GOP senators and looking for genuine alternatives like Alison Lundergan Grimes, who they know will have their back."
When asked about his past remarks Wednesday morning, Paul said his critics should look at his record, arguing that he and McConnell have repeatedly introduced legislation intended to save coal jobs and criticizing Reid for blocking those attempts.
"Anybody who examines the record will find that Sen. McConnell and I have introduced probably a dozen or so pieces of legislation to try to roll back regulations on coal," Paul told the Herald-Leader.
The Grimes campaign, in response to McConnell's time on the trail Wednesday, did not specifically target coal or Chao, as campaign manager Jonathan Hurst instead focused on McConnell's remark to The Beattyville Enterprise that it's "not my job" to bring jobs to Lee County.
"As Mitch McConnell continues his 'Not My Job' tour today, Kentuckians will not buy the deceptive rhetoric he tries to sell along the way," Hurst said in a statement.
But among the faithful at McConnell's stops on a bright and sunny Western Kentucky day, the senator's warnings about Obama and pleas to help him change the leadership of the senate were taking hold.
"It's time for a change, a big change," said Carol Jones of Muhlenberg County. "I think he can do it."
Sam Youngman: (502) 875-3793. Twitter: @samyoungman. Blog: Bluegrasspolitics.bloginky.com