PRESTONSBURG — Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes and U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell are locked in a bitter race for U.S. Senate, but while rolling out her jobs plan Thursday, Grimes didn't sound much different from her Republican opponent on one key issue.
During a major campaign speech in coal country, Grimes said federal rules on the coal industry are too burdensome and that she would work to "rein in" the federal Environmental Protection Agency.
"I will stress how important it is to ease some of the rules that restrict mines and our coal-fired power plants," Grimes told an enthusiastic crowd of more than 500 people. She added that it is critical for Eastern Kentucky to diversify its economy.
McConnell has been harshly critical of federal environmental regulations, and earlier in the day he had pushed a plan to force a vote on an Obama administration policy on coal-fired power plants.
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Grimes said that while she disagrees with McConnell on many things, it's not bad that they might be close on some issues such as coal.
Her supporters, however, said there is an important difference between Grimes and McConnell, which is that as a member of the president's party, Grimes would have a better chance of changing federal coal regulations.
"She'll have a stronger voice" with the administration, said state Rep. Rocky Adkins, a Democrat who is Kentucky's House majority leader. Adkins was one of several speakers vowing that Grimes would be a strong supporter of coal, saying she would be "a tireless advocate for Kentucky's energy sector."
Adkins added that Grimes will break with the Obama administration on coal and other issues when doing so is in Kentucky's best interest.
Grimes' jobs plan also calls for expanding investment and research into clean coal technology. She said the federal government should do more to make clean coal "economically viable."
Both candidates' positions on coal match widespread sentiment in Eastern Kentucky. Many people in the region argue that rules to protect air and water quality are too strict and have crippled the industry, which has shed more than 6,000 jobs since 2011, causing deep economic pain.
Analysts say that federal regulations are only one factor in the regional downturn.
Grimes had a lineup of leading Democrats on hand for the release of her jobs plan, including former governors Paul Patton, Martha Layne Collins and Julian Carroll; House Speaker Greg Stumbo and several other members of the legislature; state Auditor Adam Edelen and state Treasurer Todd Hollenbach; and local officials.
Grimes' plan addressed a wide range of issues, calling for more affordable child care; improved education in science, math and computers; more support for entrepreneurs and workforce training; expanded early-childhood education; and improved high-speed Internet access in rural areas.
Grimes also advocated raising the minimum wage from the current level of $7.25 to $10.10, arguing it would raise the standard of living for many families. She elicited a standing ovation by saying that a minimum wage increase is long past due.
Grimes pointed to "outrageous" studies that show the U.S. spending less on early-childhood education than other developed countries.
In plans focused on Eastern Kentucky, Grimes said she would support more money for the Appalachian Regional Commission and investments to boost the region's tourism potential.
Grimes smacked McConnell at several turns, saying he has routinely voted against job training, a higher minimum wage, pay equity for women, and other programs to help Kentuckians — ignoring people while fanning the political gridlock in Washington.
She noted that one child in four in Kentucky lives in poverty.
"Faced with hardship, it is Senator McConnell who has failed Kentucky," Grimes said.
Plenty of Democrats who spoke added to the tide of opprobrium for the incumbent.
In a video Harlan County Magistrate David Kennedy recorded for Grimes' campaign, Kennedy said McConnell came to the county 30 years ago, made promises to work for jobs and better roads and hasn't done anything for the county since.
"You can't show me one job that Mitch McConnell's helped create," Kennedy said.
Patton said the Republicans' stance on unemployment seemed to be that "if you don't get a job, starve."
Coal promises to be a key issue throughout the campaign.
McConnell's campaign responded to Grimes and others with a list of legislation and actions it said the senator has taken to help Eastern Kentucky while continuing to portray Grimes as beholden to anti-coal Democrats, but it also sought to tie her to Obama Administration coal policies.
"Alison Lundergan Grimes' entire campaign from the day she was recruited by Harry 'coal makes us sick' Reid has been supported by anti-coal activists who have shown nothing but disdain for Eastern Kentucky," said Allison Moore, McConnell's press secretary. "Mitch McConnell is a tireless advocate for the region who fights every day to ensure that the same Washington liberals who are supporting Alison's candidacy aren't able to continue to prosecute their war on coal and the entire region."
U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers also praised the senator in a statement provided by McConnell's campaign, saying they have worked hard together to protect the coal industry.
Earlier Thursday, a super PAC allied with McConnell released a radio ad assailing Grimes as "a dishonest liberal, bad for coal and Kentucky." Kentuckians for Strong Leadership said it is spending $85,000 on the radio ad, which is to start running Friday, as it looked to undercut Grimes' Prestonsburg event.
The ad keys in on a fundraiser for Grimes last year in San Francisco with former mayor Gavin Newsom, who once called coal a "fuel from hell."
"While Kentucky suffers from Obama's war on coal, Alison Grimes has been on a gold rush in San Francisco," the ad says, "raising big bucks with the most anti-coal politicians and activists in America."
As she did in her speech Thursday, however, Grimes has attempted to move to the right of McConnell on coal issues, laying the blame for dramatic job losses in Eastern Kentucky at McConnell's feet and assailing Obama for "reckless regulations."