Elections

The 7 biggest whoppers of Kentucky's U.S. Senate race

Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes and Republican Mitch McConnell, center, talked with Kentucky Tonight host Bill Goodman before Monday night's U.S. Senate debate at KET.
Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes and Republican Mitch McConnell, center, talked with Kentucky Tonight host Bill Goodman before Monday night's U.S. Senate debate at KET. Lexington Herald-Leader

Campaigns and independent groups just spent millions of dollars to convince Kentucky voters that everyone running for Congress this fall is a villain hoping to inflict grievous harm on hard-working families.

The attacks drew blood, as intended. Republican U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell nursed a 44 percent unfavorable rating in the Bluegrass Poll last week, compared to 43 percent for Democratic Senate nominee Alison Lundergan Grimes. Among likely voters, both Senate candidates ended up being viewed more negatively than positively.

Much of what was said this year was untrue. But in politics, facts don't matter as much as the image you create, said Joe Gershtenson, a political scientist at Eastern Kentucky University. Scary attack ads and outlandish claims are prevalent because they work so well, Gershtenson said.

"Your typical undecided voter doesn't know something is a fib when they first hear it, so now you've gotten inside their head and left an impression," Gershtenson said. "After they've digested that claim and processed it, other people can do what they want to try and counteract it — to point out that, hey, it isn't actually true — but that claim is going to stay in there to some degree. And so the campaign has succeeded."

With that in mind, here are seven of the biggest whoppers of Election '14:

1. Kynect is just a website.

McConnell and U.S. Rep. Andy Barr, R-Lexington, each made this claim while debating their opponents on KET in October. The Republicans said that Kentucky's health insurance exchange, known as Kynect, could continue if Congress repeals the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. McConnell and Barr pledged to repeal the health law.

"Kynect is a website," McConnell told KET host Bill Goodman on Oct. 13. "The website can continue. But in my view, the best interest of the country would be achieved by pulling out Obamacare, root and branch."

However, the Kynect website's purpose is to connect Kentuckians to insurance plans made possible by the Affordable Care Act's structure of subsidies, expanded Medicaid and coverage mandates. If Congress eliminates the federal health law, Kynect couldn't offer subsidies for private insurance or Medicaid to an expanded population just above the poverty line. (For the first few years, the federal government pays the full cost of expanding Medicaid, which covers the poor and disabled; later, the federal share will drop to 90 percent.)

As of July 31, more than 521,000 Kentuckians had enrolled in a health insurance plan through Kynect, most of them through Medicaid. The percentage of Kentucky adults without health insurance dropped from 20.4 percent last year to less than 12 percent, the second-largest decline among the states since the federal law took effect in January, according to a Gallup poll released this summer.

As Jon Stewart summarized McConnell's claim on The Daily Show, "Mitch McConnell: He will keep the website, but he will get rid of the program the website connects you to. Leave the website as some sort of Internet ghost so people can scroll through health care options they can no longer choose from. 'Oh, look, honey, here's a plan that would have paid for your chemo treatments!'"

2. McConnell got rich from holding office.

In August, Grimes ran a television ad suggesting something improper about McConnell's personal wealth.

"What can happen in 30 years?" the narrator asked as a sequence of photos showed McConnell aging at the U.S. Capitol. "A senator can become a multi-millionaire in public office."

Technically, the ad is correct, but it leaves a false impression. McConnell joined the Senate in 1985, having earned a modest salary as Jefferson County judge-executive. Today he is worth an estimated $22.8 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which studies the financial disclosures of members of Congress.

However, McConnell got rich the old-fashioned way: through marriage and inheritance. His second wife, former U.S. Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, acquired much of the money when her mother died in 2007. The Chao family controls a lucrative shipping firm that was founded by Elaine Chao's father. Also, Elaine Chao sits on a number of corporate boards that pay her far more than McConnell's $193,400-a-year Senate paycheck.

The Tampa Bay Times' PolitiFact rated Grimes' claim "mostly false," adding that "the statement contains some element of truth but ignores critical facts that would give a different impression."

There is irony in McConnell getting jabbed over his inherited wealth given that he mocked his 1990 Democratic challenger, former Louisville Mayor Harvey Sloane, for the same thing.

"His mommy left him a million dollars," McConnell said of Sloane in a Fancy Farm speech 24 years ago. "Now this is the guy who's going to get up here in a few minutes and tell you that he can better represent the working men and women of Kentucky?"

3. Grimes supports 'Obama's amnesty plan.'

The Kentucky Opportunity Coalition — a pro-McConnell "social welfare" group that does not disclose its donors — ran a television spot in September attacking Grimes on immigration, complete with grainy infrared footage of men scrambling over a fence.

"Alison Grimes: proud supporter of Obama's amnesty plan," the narrator said. "Their plan: citizenship for millions who broke the law. Illegal immigrants would become eligible for taxpayer-funded benefits. Food stamps, unemployment, even Medicare. Obama and Grimes. Two liberals for amnesty, too liberal for us."

The ad cited as its source a Nov. 21, 2013, interview that Grimes gave to CN2.

But Grimes did not — in that interview or any other — endorse an "amnesty plan" by Democratic President Barack Obama. Instead, Grimes said she opposes Obama taking the lead on immigration with executive orders. She told CN2 that Congress should pass a bill that includes "an earned pathway to citizenship."

"Giving a pathway to citizenship for so many millions of Americans can have a positive impact right here in the state of Kentucky," Grimes said. "We need to be considering it. It's not just securing our borders, it's making sure we have a pathway to citizenship for so many that are here in the commonwealth, doing great work."

Months earlier, the Senate voted 68-to-32 to pass such an immigration bill. It was co-sponsored by U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who said "no one gets amnesty." Instead, the bill calls for stronger U.S.-Mexico border enforcement and background checks for the undocumented immigrants who could apply for a temporary work status that would protect them from deportation. The Senate bill stalled in the House.

4. Republicans will wreck Medicare.

Medicare provides health insurance for senior citizens, also known as the most reliable voters.

In July, Grimes ran a television spot in which she sat next to Don Disney, a retired coal miner. Disney faced the camera and posed a question to the absent McConnell: "I want to know how you could have voted to raise my Medicare costs by $6,000. How are my wife and I supposed to afford that?" After a pause, Grimes told Disney, "I don't think he's going to answer that."

Elisabeth Jensen, the Democratic nominee in Central Kentucky's 6th Congressional District, made similar accusations against Barr, the Republican incumbent. In a September television ad, Jensen said that "Barr supports a plan that would cut Medicare for most Kentucky seniors."

But McConnell didn't vote to raise Disney's Medicare costs. In 2011, McConnell and Barr (then just a candidate) supported a budget-cutting plan written by House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis. Ryan called for the gradual replacement of traditional Medicare with government-subsidized private insurance for Americans then younger than 55.

The Congressional Budget Office estimated that Ryan's privatized version of Medicare would cost seniors $6,000 a year more than traditional Medicare by the year 2020. Ryan's plan soon died for lack of support. The CBO later muddied the waters by announcing that its $6,000 estimate was based on some assumptions that did not prove to be true.

Regardless, neither McConnell nor Barr have voted to cut Medicare for Disney or anyone else currently collecting it.

5. Democrats also will wreck Medicare.

At the same time, McConnell and Barr have attacked Grimes and Jensen, respectively, for supporting the Affordable Care Act, which the Republicans claim "cuts $700 billion from Medicare."

Except that it doesn't really cut anything. The ACA reduces the projected growth in federal payments to hospitals and insurance companies by an estimated $716 billion by the year 2022, to reduce health care costs and to help pay for the law's benefits. Overall Medicare spending will continue to grow.

PolitiFact rates this claim "mostly false."

"The only element of truth here is that the health care law seeks to reduce future Medicare spending, and the tally of those cost reductions over the next 10 years is $716 billion," PolitiFact wrote.

In addition, Ryan's budget-cutting plan in 2011 — the one McConnell and Barr supported — also would have slowed the growth in Medicare payments to hospitals and insurance companies.

6. Grimes hates coal.

McConnell and Grimes spent much of the year declaring their sympathy for Kentucky's coal industry and criticizing the "war on coal" that they say is waged by Obama and the Environmental Protection Agency, which enforces clean air and clean water rules.

Yet each accused the other of being an enemy of coal. Independent groups backing McConnell jumped into the coal fight, too.

"Grimes was silent as Obama attacked coal ... fully supporting Obama's liberal platform," the Kentucky Opportunity Coalition said of Grimes in a June television ad.

In reality, Grimes went to great lengths to distance herself from Obama (she wouldn't even say if she voted for him), especially on coal. She criticized the EPA's proposed limits on power plant carbon emissions as "impossible to achieve" for coal. She said she was "deeply disappointed" by the Obama administration's climate change policy because it did not take into account the impact on Eastern Kentucky coal mining jobs.

"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 last year as her campaign got started. "Any new regulations must take into account the impact on Kentucky jobs and be based on current technology that will not drive Kentucky coal out of business."

Republicans brandished undercover videos by conservative activist James O'Keefe in which several Grimes supporters said they are convinced she doesn't really mean what she says in support of coal. But there was no footage of Grimes. Beyond partisan suspicion or cynicism, there is no evidence to suggest that Grimes is less than sincere on coal.

"Grimes has been vocal and consistent throughout her campaign about her opposition to Obama administration regulations on the coal industry," said FactCheck.org, a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center.

7. McConnell also hates coal.

Fighting fire with fire, Grimes accused McConnell of undermining the coal industry. Grimes said McConnell is motivated by "anti-coal" campaign donations and appointments that Chao, his wife, holds on the boards of "enemies of coal," including Bloomberg Philanthropies and Wells Fargo. The former supports an effort to retire old coal-fired power plants; the latter has decided to stop financing mountaintop removal mining. Chao was not involved in either decision.

In an October television spot, Grimes stood in front of the Big Sandy power plant in Louisa and blamed McConnell for half of the plant shutting down and laying off workers.

"Mitch McConnell didn't fight to get the scrubbers it needs to reduce coal emissions," Grimes said. "Instead, Mitch and his wife pocketed $600,000 from enemies of coal, including New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. ... The difference between Mitch and me is I will fight for these jobs, and no New York anti-coal billionaire will ever buy me off."

The Washington Post awarded that ad four out of four Pinocchios, its worst score for dishonesty. The Post reported that American Electric Power, which owns the power plant in Grimes' ad, chose not to retrofit it with scrubbers because that would mean a 31 percent hike in electricity costs for its Eastern Kentucky customers.

"First, it's unclear why a senator would be seeking to provide scrubbers to an investor-owned company," the Post wrote. "Second, going the scrubber route would have jacked up utility rates for what is already one of the poorest parts of the state."

As for McConnell and Chao being "bought off" by anti-coal money, this might be the first time anyone has leveled that accusation. Until now, the most frequent coal-related criticism of the couple was that they bent over backward to help coal operators who made large donations to McConnell and other Republicans.

For example, Chao's Labor Department — staffed with several of McConnell's aides — was accused of having "whitewashed" its investigation of a massive coal slurry spill in Martin County in 2000. The company behind the spill, Massey Energy, ultimately was fined $5,600 by a Labor Department administrative law judge. In 2002, Massey's PAC gave $100,000 to the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

Maybe the biggest whopper of Election '14 is that Eastern Kentucky's coal industry will come roaring back to life if the right person gets elected to the Senate on Tuesday.

In reality, the region's mining jobs have been disappearing for decades, since long before Obama got to the White House. Elected leaders like Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear and Republican U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers of Somerset spent this year searching for post-coal economic solutions. Not McConnell and Grimes; they insisted that they can return Kentucky to the golden age of coal, although most observers consider it unlikely in the 21st century.

"Many factors besides regulations have sped coal's decline here — like low natural gas prices, shrinking coal reserves and higher production costs," WFPL/89.3 FM environmental reporter Erica Peterson said last December in a public radio program on Kentucky's coal industry.

"There will still be coal mining to some extent in Eastern Kentucky, but a lot of this is a done deal, and no politician or policy is going to bring back coal's glory days," Peterson said. "Coal is a victim of the market forces these same politicians champion in health care and banking."

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