FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Kentucky's competitive U.S. Senate race shifts east this week as both campaigns fight for votes in the heart of the state's coal country, a historically Democratic stronghold that experts say has been weakened by the unpopularity of Democratic President Barack Obama.
Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes and Republican Mitch McConnell will both bring in reinforcements for their eastern Kentucky campaign swings. Former President Bill Clinton, who won Kentucky twice and is making his second trip for Grimes, will raise money for Grimes in Lexington and rally voters in Hazard on Wednesday.
McConnell, meanwhile, will be joined byHal Rogers for a 10-county bus tour on Thursday and Friday. The Republican congressman has represented eastern Kentucky for more than three decades and has partnered with Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear lately on a bipartisan plan aimed at lifting the region out of poverty.
"Clearly eastern Kentucky is a battleground. Votes are up for grabs, more so than any other Democratic nominee has had to deal with up to now," said Mike Ward, a Democratic consultant and former congressman.
Eastern Kentucky has struggled economically for generations, and now is grappling with the decline of the state's coal industry. Kentucky is still the nation's third-largest coal producer, but eastern Kentucky alone has lost 7,000 coal-related jobs since 2012, according to the Kentucky Coal Association.
The Grimes campaign blames McConnell, who they say has not done enough to help eastern Kentucky during his 30 year tenure. But the McConnell campaign blames Obama and his energy policies that they say have handcuffed the state's coal industry.
That's why it helps Grimes to have Clinton with her as she returns to eastern Kentucky.
"Who better to bring in than President Clinton, who created a large number of jobs and who did really boost the economy," said Grimes' campaign manager Jonathan Hurst. "Alison is a Clinton Democrat. That's something she feels very strongly about and it's something we will continue to talk about through the race."
Hurst said Grimes remains popular in eastern Kentucky despite Obama. She has toured an eastern Kentucky coal mine and held several round-table discussions with coal miners in the region. He said Grimes will use the campaign stops to discuss her opposition to Obama's energy policies and her recent endorsement by the United Mine Workers of America.
Republicans see Clinton's visit as another opportunity to tie Grimes to the national Democratic Party.
"You've got the Grimes campaign bringing in national Democrats touting national Democratic policies that have uniquely hurt the region, whereas Sen. McConnell and Congressman Rogers have been ... working every day to try to not only combat the Obama administration but implement various measures to ease some of the burden," said Josh Holmes, McConnell's senior campaign adviser. "It's hard to find the math to make it work if Democrats don't win eastern Kentucky."
The United Mine Workers of America represent about 2 percent of Kentucky's active coal miners. None of the eastern Kentucky mines is affiliated with the labor union, according to Bill Bissett, president of the Kentucky Coal Association. Cecil Roberts, the union's president, is scheduled to appear with Clinton and Grimes on Wednesday.
"In Kentucky, he is a far less significant voice," Bissett said.
But the association does have about 10,000 retired, dues-paying members who live in Kentucky, spokesman Phil Smith said.
"We are the only entity that represents coal miners in this country. Even nonunion coal miners understand that," Smith said. "They may agree or disagree with what we say, but they pay attention to what we say."