LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Republican Matt Bevin blasted Mitch McConnell's long Senate record on Thursday and pointedly said the Senate minority leader "dilly-dallied" as Kentucky's coal sector suffers and undermined efforts to cut off funding for the health care overhaul despised by both candidates.
"Where has he fought for coal?" Bevin told reporters after laying out his position on a range of issues in his long-shot bid to unseat Kentucky's longest-serving senator in the May GOP primary. "Where has Mitch McConnell actually gone to battle for the people of Kentucky on anything?"
McConnell's campaign scoffed at the claims made by Bevin, a Louisville businessman. It said the five-term senator has been at the forefront of fights against the health care overhaul and regulations limiting carbon pollution from power plants, seen as a key contributor to the coal sector's downturn by people in the eastern Kentucky coalfields.
Bevin came out swinging in his speech, mixing policy statements with jabs at McConnell. The political newcomer portrayed the incumbent as part of the "elite class" in Washington, out of touch with issues back home in Kentucky.
The winner of the GOP primary will likely face Democratic front-runner Alison Lundergan Grimes in the November election. Grimes serves as Kentucky's secretary of state. She officially filed paperwork Thursday for her Senate bid, and was joined by Gov. Steve Beshear and four former governors at the event.
While prominent Democrats tried to show a united front, the Bevin and McConnell campaigns exchanged sharp criticism.
Taking a shot at Bevin's credentials, McConnell campaign spokeswoman Allison Moore said voters won't buy into Bevin's "laughable pitch that the New England finance man is a Kentucky conservative" — a reference to the challenger's Northeastern roots.
Bevin's campaign bio says he's a former Army captain who has been a top executive at his family's bell-making business. He worked in the financial industry for years. Since coming to Kentucky in 1999, his business interests have ranged from manufacturing to software, his campaign bio added.
On the health care debate, McConnell has co-sponsored more than 20 bills to repeal, dismantle and defund the health-care law, and has given more than 150 Senate floor speeches denouncing the embattled law, according to McConnell's staff.
Bevin said in his speech that McConnell undermined efforts by Senate conservatives from his own party to gut the health care law, but McConnell's campaign countered that the senator signed on as a co-sponsor to a defunding bill.
On the coal issue, Bevin said, McConnell has dithered while Obama's administration has decimated the coal industry.
"Mitch McConnell is all talk and no action, and it's time for him to retire with dignity," Bevin said.
Kentucky's coal industry has been in a prolonged economic slump, hurt by decreased demand for its product and more stringent environmental restrictions. Several thousand miners in the state have lost their jobs over the past two years.
McConnell's campaign said his credentials in defending for the coal sector include co-sponsoring legislation seeking to ban new carbon emissions standards on new or existing coal-fired power plants.
Bevin sounded populist themes in staking out positions on a host of issues during his speech to a few dozen supporters.
He criticized McConnell's votes supporting bailouts of banks and mortgage lenders and for earmarks to fund pet projects. He accused the senator of embracing "crony capitalism" that favors big business.
"These bailout votes were the wrong path for our country," said Bevin, adding that they amounted to using tax dollars to "reward failure."
"The role of government is not to be picking winners and losers," he said.
McConnell's campaign ran a TV ad last year attacking Bevin for accepting a $200,000 taxpayer bailout for his companies in Connecticut, and alleged that he didn't pay taxes on the companies, a claim that Bevin denied. The ad referred to Bevin as "Bailout Bevin."
Bevin endorsed requiring congressional approval for federal regulations with an annual economic impact of $100 million or more. He denounced the government's warrantless surveillance program, opposed federal subsidies for agribusiness giants and called for less red-tape in adoptions.
He portrayed himself as a political newcomer taking on an entrenched incumbent interested in "retaining personal power."
"If we want to truly change the failed policies of Washington, it is imperative that we change the self-serving, career politicians that are continuing to haunt the halls of Congress," Bevin said.