LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell portrayed himself Saturday night as the top target of national Democrats in this year's election, and said "every crazy liberal in America" is contributing to his Kentucky challenger in hopes of dislodging him from the Senate.
Speaking to a Republican crowd in his hometown of Louisville, McConnell aimed most of his criticism at President Barack Obama — reflecting his strategy of undermining his Democratic foe, Alison Lundergan Grimes, by linking her to the president, who is unpopular in Kentucky.
In his one direct attack at Grimes, he branded her as out of touch with coal miners, and said she is benefiting from loads of campaign cash from liberal activists who resent his opposition to Obama's policies.
"There's nobody in the country that the left wants to beat more than the guy you're looking at," McConnell said. "Every crazy liberal in America is sending my opponent multiple checks every week. They think I'm the president's biggest problem. I'm proud of that."
Coal policy has emerged as an overarching issue in Kentucky's closely watched Senate race.
Obama's new plan to impose stricter federal emissions standards on coal-fired power plants has drawn sharp criticism from both McConnell and Grimes. Kentucky is among the nation's top coal producers.
McConnell blamed Obama's regulations for causing widespread job losses in coal-producing counties in eastern Kentucky. And McConnell scoffed at the chances that Obama's move to limit U.S. carbon emissions will prompt important shifts elsewhere on climate policies.
"You must wonder how one country reducing its carbon emissions is going to affect the global problem when the Europeans are starting to back away from it and the Indians and the Chinese say 'we're not about to do this to our economy,'" the senator said. "So this is all pain and no gain."
McConnell continued efforts to put Grimes on the defensive on the issue. He poked fun at her campaign's recent problem with a stock photo in an ad meant to show her independence in sticking up for coal interests.
"My opponent has been in Hollywood so much lately that she really can't tell the difference between a coal miner and a European male model," he said.
McConnell was referring to the Grimes campaign's use of a Ukrainian male model posing as a coal miner in an early newspaper ad. Grimes' campaign blamed its design firm and said the photo was replaced before the ad ran in Kentucky's coal country.
McConnell's campaign has run into its own problems with stock photos.
Democrats chided McConnell's campaign for using European photos to promote his support for coal and gun rights in Facebook posts. They pointed to a McConnell Facebook post earlier this year that showed a Greek power plant as part of the Republican senator's criticism of Obama's coal policy.
Grimes' campaign said she has pressed the case for coal with the Senate's top-ranking Democrat.
She expressed her displeasure with Obama's new emissions regulations and stressed the struggles in coal country in a discussion with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid at a recent fundraiser in Washington, the campaign said.
"She offered real stories of Kentuckians struggling to make ends meet and stressed that we need a comprehensive, balanced approach that reins in the EPA, invests in clean coal technology and keeps foreign markets open for Kentucky coal," said Grimes campaign manager, Jonathan Hurst.
McConnell is facing perhaps his toughest re-election campaign as he seeks a sixth term in the November election. Grimes is in her first term as Kentucky's secretary of state. Democrats see the race as a chance to pick up a GOP-held seat and defeat a longtime nemesis.
Republicans have stressed the need for unity after McConnell faced a spirited primary challenge from Louisville businessman Matt Bevin, who garnered considerable tea party support. McConnell recognized Bevin at Saturday night's event, which also featured Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus. McConnell said his challenger made him a better candidate. Bevin received a warm ovation from the crowd.