LOUISVILLE — Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes tried to distance herself from President Barack Obama on Thursday following her first major public appearance since announcing she would challenge Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in 2014.
Speaking at a statewide gathering of county officials, the first-term secretary of state told reporters she does not support the Democratic president's positions on coal and that Obama's Affordable Care Act is flawed.
"Coal keeps the lights on here in Kentucky," Grimes said. "I disagree with the president and his philosophies in terms of coal. I stand by the 15,000 men and women who are employed here in the state of Kentucky."
The 34-year-old lawyer also said there are "many things" wrong with the Affordable Care Act, "but instead of trying to repeal it nearly 40 times, wasting our taxpayer's money, we should be talking about solutions."
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Republicans have wasted no time trying to tie Grimes to Obama since she announced her candidacy on July 1, referring to her in one ad as "Obama's secret weapon in the war on coal."
Political observers said Grimes' early effort to distance herself from the president is no surprise, given that Kentuckians overwhelmingly voted against Obama in 2008 and 2012.
"There's no doubt that she carries the baggage of Obama," said Stephen Voss, an associate professor of political science at the University of Kentucky. "She has to early and clearly differentiate herself from Barack Obama. Kentucky voters are perfectly happy to vote for a Kentucky Democrat but they are not very happy to vote for a national Democrat."
David Kennedy, a Democratic magistrate from Harlan County who attended Thursday's meeting at the Galt House, said he liked what Grimes had to say about her support for the coal industry.
He and other Democratic county officials said voters in the state's eastern coalfield hate Obama and the Environmental Protection Agency for making it more difficult to obtain coal mining permits and for proposing new rules that would make it more difficult to build new coal-burning power plants.
Kennedy, though, faults McConnell for not doing enough to intervene on coal's behalf.
"He's one of the most powerful politicians in Washington, and he has not kept the EPA off of us one bit," Kennedy said. "We've got to get somebody in there to help support coal or we're all going to go under."
Kennedy said four coal mines have closed in the part of Harlan County he represents in the last year, leaving more than 300 coal miners without jobs.
McConnell campaign manager Jesse Benton said protecting coal jobs is a core issue for McConnell.
"The Democrat administration just declared a war on coal, and their party platform supports onerous EPA regulations and anti-coal policies that are destructive to Kentucky jobs and manufacturing," Benton said in a statement. "We are fighting to replace their Senate leader Harry Reid, a man from Nevada who says 'coal makes you sick,' with Mitch McConnell, a proud Kentuckian who will always stand up for Kentucky families."
McConnell and the Republican Party also have hammered Grimes in recent days for having no public appearances in the days after announcing she would run against the five-term senator from Louisville.
Grimes told reporters on Thursday that she was not the unprepared, second-tier or back-bench candidate that McConnell and the Republican Party have tried to paint her as over the past two weeks.
"I don't believe that any woman belongs on the back bench," Grimes said. "And the question I would ask is: What has Sen. McConnell done at the front of the bench for Kentucky for 28 years?"
Grimes said she remains focused on fulfilling her duties as secretary of state, including welcoming home returning troops at Fort Knox.
"I will not be bullied," Grimes said. "My first and foremost priority is serving as secretary of state."
She did not mention her visit over the weekend with national Democratic Party leaders and major donors on Martha's Vineyard island in Massachusetts.
Grimes also said criticisms about how she kicked off her campaign with a hastily called news conference and no campaign website are without merit.
"I am excited about the campaign that we are building," Grimes said. "I do believe we will cross that finish line successfully. It's not how you start, it's how finish."
Grimes plans to hold an official kick-off to her campaign on July 30.