LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — Kentucky's U.S. Senate candidates are both trying to carve away voters from the other's base of support after a quarrelsome debate.
Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell planned to court mining families in Democratic coal country Tuesday, while Democratic challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes was to campaign in the conservative northern part of the state.
The debate Monday kicked off the final three weeks of a contentious and expensive campaign that could help determine which party controls the Senate. One of their starkest differences concerned the role climate change plays in the decline of the coal industry and the related economic depression in eastern Kentucky.
McConnell said "there are a bunch of scientists" who believe climate change is a problem, but added the science is far from settled and said the job of a U.S. senator is to fight for coal jobs. Grimes ridiculed the five-term senator by saying "you don't have to be a scientist to recognize the realities of what is happening around us."
Coal has become a central issue in the race, especially in the Democratic stronghold of eastern Kentucky that has borne the brunt of the 7,000 coal industry job losses since Jan. 1, 2012. McConnell's pitch to struggling Kentuckians is to return him to the Senate for a sixth term so he can become the majority leader and set the Senate agenda.
"What we need to do in Congress ... is begin to restrict the funding of the Environmental Protection Agency so they cannot go down this path," McConnell said. "I will guarantee that we will be voting on those types of issues."
Grimes said the 7,000 job losses came during McConnell's watch, and added he should have done more to build coalitions to stop President Barack Obama's energy policies that have curbed carbon emissions and made it more difficult to build new coal-fired power plants.
"Sen. McConnell fails to see he has a role in all of the jobs that have been lost here in the state," Grimes said. "You've been there 30 years and you don't want to take any responsibility."
The race is one of several that will determine whether Republicans capture a Senate majority in midterm elections. They need to gain six seats to prevail, and a GOP triumph would all but certainly make McConnell the new majority leader, with the power to set the Senate's legislative agenda during the last two years of Obama's presidency.
The contest is also one of the most expensive in the country, with millions of dollars in television commercials aired by the candidates, their parties and allies focused on Senate races nationally. McConnell also has benefited from about $20 million in advertisements from a pair of organizations set up by former aides and associates solely to re-elect him to a sixth term.
Side by side with McConnell for the only time in their race, Grimes offered several possible labels for the 30-year Senate veteran — "Senator no-show, Senator gridlock and Senator shutdown."
McConnell countered that as Senate Republican leader, he has been involved in the major bipartisan deals that have been reached in the past four years of divided government.
He also said that despite her attempts to establish her political independence from the president, Grimes was a delegate to the Democratic National Conventions in 2008 and 2012, when some Democratic office-holders stayed away. "She's made a major effort to deceive the people of Kentucky," he said.
Grimes stuck to her dayslong refusal to say whether she voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012. She insisted that if she answered the question, it would "compromise a constitutional right" to cast a secret ballot. McConnell scoffed at that. "There's no sacred right to not announce how you voted," he said, seated next to Grimes for an hourlong debate hosted by KET, the state's public television station.
Grimes, 35, was recruited by the Democratic party nationally to run, and got off to a fast start while McConnell, 72, was bogged down in a costly primary race with tea party rival Matt Bevin.
Grimes and McConnell both won their primaries with ease in mid-May, at a time the Democratic challenger was ahead in most if not all of the public polls. She soon came under a withering barrage of televised attacks, though. In recent weeks, her favorability has eroded in public surveys, many of which show McConnell with a slender advantage in a very tight race.
The debate's sponsors did not allow still photographers or reporters into the studio during the event, preventing them from capturing the full context of how the candidates performed outside the view of KET's cameras.