GRAYS KNOB, Ky. (AP) — Joe Bart Watts was mining coal 3 miles in a mountain when his house burned down last summer. Over the next year, Harlan Cumberland Coal cut his hours, laid off 200 workers and he had to move in with his mother.
In this sparsely populated swath of eastern Kentucky, it is voters like Watts who have become the prize in what has become a battleground area in one of the country's most watched U.S. Senate races.
"This year has been the worst, I think, for coal mining for us as it's ever been," said Watts, who supports Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell.
McConnell, a 30-year incumbent, has tried to tie challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes to Democratic President Barack Obama and what Republicans have called his "war on coal." Obama is deeply unpopular in the state.
With most polls showing a close race, McConnell started a three-day bus tour Monday through eastern Kentucky to make his pitch to miners and their families with a little over two weeks left before the election. The tour will take him through 15 counties where the median household income is $33,023 per year, about $20,000 less than the national figure. In Harlan County, where Watts works, the unemployment rate is 14.4 percent, the second highest in the state. The median home price is $55,000 and the school district has lost more than 1,100 students since 1999.
McConnell blames Obama and his energy policies, framing the issue as an "us against them" mentality.
"You're hard pressed to think of anything they haven't fouled up. Look what they did to our health care system. Look what they do with the coal mines. Specifically look what they've done to Harlan county," McConnell told a group at Mountain Supply Company in Grays Knob. "They have a different view of almost everything. This administration is full of a bunch of people that went to Ivy League schools. They think they're smarter than we are. They look down their noses at us. They want to tell us how to live our lives."
Alison Lundergan Grimes counters that eastern Kentucky's struggles have come during McConnell's 30-year Senate career. She has also campaigned heavily here, telling voters McConnell is out of touch. She visited six eastern Kentucky counties on Saturday. She has toured an underground coal mine and has been endorsed by the United Mineworkers of America. And earlier this year, she appeared on stage at a rally with former President Bill Clinton and about two dozen coal miners in Hazard before a crowd of more than 1,000 people.
McConnell has pledged that if he is re-elected he would slash the budget of the Environmental Protection Agency, which has issued a series of new emission standards that state officials say would prevent the replacement of the state's aging fleet of coal fired power plants that, right now, provide about 90 percent of the state's electricity. Grimes has also spoken out against the regulations, but said she is opposed to McConnell's budget idea because it could force a government shutdown.