- Associated Press - Thursday, August 7, 2014

MIDDLESBORO, Ky. (AP) — Campaigning in coal country, Sen. Mitch McConnell pinned the loss of thousands of Kentucky mining jobs on President Barack Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency on Thursday and said his Democratic election rival would be a vote to continue them in Congress.

Rarely, if ever, mentioning Alison Lundergan Grimes by name, McConnell instead said unspecified “people are against the Kentucky way of life and need to be sent a strong message by the voters in November. …”

“They question our values. They question our work habits. These people are not the kind of people we have here in Kentucky,” he said.

McConnell is in a close race with Grimes in his drive to win a sixth term. As the Senate’s top Republican, he is also in line to become majority leader if Republicans gain a majority this fall.

His two-day bus tour through hilly, gritty eastern Kentucky included stops in counties that he won in his most recent race in 2008 and in counties he lost. The region itself is in the midst of a political transition. Once a stronghold of the United Mineworkers Union, it reliably voted Democrat.

In recent years, though, the union’s presence has withered, and Republicans have fared better in the socially conservative, economically depressed region.

Obama is particularly unpopular, and the senator criticized him by name repeatedly. He linked Grimes to the president and his policies, saying, if elected she “would be a new face that will do what Obama says.”

Grimes has consistently denied the charge when it comes to coal, saying frequently that she opposes the president’s approach.

McConnell campaigned before appreciative audiences as his bus made its way from one small town to another. “Legalize Coal,” read T-shirts that were handed out at one stop.

He set out one day after former President Bill Clinton campaigned for Grimes in Hazard, which is located in a county that state figures show is losing mining jobs.

Hoping to discredit the former president, McConnell told each of his audiences that Obama had renamed the building that houses the EPA in Washington for the former president. “Do they think we don’t know?” he asked.

At another stop, he boasted, “I know how to handle the Clintons.” He recalled that he piled up a 160,000 vote margin in his own re-election race in 1996, while Clinton carried Kentucky narrowly in winning a second term in the White House.

State figures show eastern Kentucky has lost about 7,000 jobs in the mining industry and thousands more in other fields dependent on coal in recent years. While McConnell asserted that environmental regulations are the cause, industry officials say the deep economic recession has played a role. Also factoring in the decline is growing competition from natural gas, which has come down in price as fracking, the practice of extracting oil and gas from rock by injecting high-pressure mixtures of water, sand or gravel and chemicals, has become more widely employed.

Still, the EPA is readying a regulation to curb pollution blowing into nearby states from power plants and other rules to cut carbon dioxide levels by 30 percent from 2005 levels at existing plants. Another proposal would require improvements to cooling towers so they kill less fish and larvae.

McConnell was accompanied by Rep. Hal Rogers, the veteran Republican congressman who routinely wins re-election by overwhelming margins in the region.

In his own remarks, Rogers referred frequently to federal funds that he and McConnell have worked to send back to the state for roads, bridges, tunnels and other items. “Hundreds of projects,” he said at one stop.

It’s something of a touchy subject for McConnell, who was well-known earlier in his career for his ability to secure money for the state’s needs. He faced a challenge for renomination earlier in the year from a rival backed by the tea party, whose allies in Congress banned earmarks a few years ago.

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