Obama’s coal proposal gives Alison Grimes an excellent way to fight with him

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's game plan for victory in November isn't that complicated: Remind Kentuckians that he'll be the most powerful Republican in Washington if the GOP retakes the Senate, and tell everyone who will listen just how closely Alison Lundergan Grimes, his Democratic opponent, is linked to President Obama.

To which Grimes suddenly has a rebuttal: I am at war with Barack Obama.


Alison Lundergan Grimes. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

It's a bit more nuanced than that, of course. (Don't act surprised.) But this week's announcement from the EPA that it proposes to cut emissions from fossil fuel power plants provides Grimes with a perfect opportunity to try and argue that she's independent from the unpopular administration.

When she won her primary last month, Grimes did her best to continuing digging out a wide trench between herself and the president, saying that she didn't "agree with the president's war on coal," which she declared to be "bad for Kentucky." Her rationale for criticizing the president is clear. A NBC News/Marist poll from last month found that "55% of Kentucky residents disapprove of how President Obama is doing in office." In April, 58 percent of people in the state considered Kentucky's economy to be either "fairly bad" or "very bad," according to a poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation and The New York Times. The "war on coal" Grimes mentioned has been blamed for the faltering economy; in 2013, the eastern part of the state lost 23 percent of its coal jobs. And the "war on coal," in the estimation of Kentuckians, belongs solely to the president.

This week, the war on coal became much more real. The proposed EPA regulation would mandate that states cut their greenhouse gas emissions at varying levels by 2030. That means changes in how states produce electricity, which almost certainly means less coal use — which is bad for coal companies and their employees, many of whom live in Kentucky.

So here's a radio ad Grimes put out on Wednesday.

Says Grimes: "Mr. President, Kentucky has lost one-third of our coal jobs in just the last three years. Now your EPA is targeting Kentucky coal with pie-in-the-sky regulations that are impossible to achieve. It’s clear you have no idea how this affects Kentucky."

Then she notes how many coal jobs have been lost since McConnell was elected to the Senate, and ends by saying: "I approve this message — and Mr. President? You'll be hearing it a lot more when I'm in the Senate."

That's a nifty move: Pick a fight with Obama, but also turn your party affiliation into a positive. Grimes will fight Obama on coal from the inside, she's suggesting.

(This is also a little more nuanced than the strategy West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin used to win his seat in 2010, which involved a similar conflict of party and environmental policy. In one ad, Manchin famously pulled out a rifle and shot a climate change bill.)

McConnell has moved to block the EPA proposal, introducing a bill on Tuesday that would prevent the proposal from going into effect. He'll use the issue to keep hammering Grimes; earlier this week, his spokesperson told the Lexington Herald-Leader that "Alison Lundergan Grimes' campaign is fueled by unapologetically anti-Kentucky forces, and they're gathering into a perfect storm this week." Grimes' team responded to the McConnell proposal saying his bill "does not go far enough."

It's not ideal for Grimes that an unpopular president shares her political party and has proposed a measure that voters in her state likely perceive as overwhelmingly bad. If Grimes wants to establish her independence from Obama, she needs to pick a fight. And he just gave her a way to do just that.

Philip Bump writes about politics for The Fix. He previously wrote for The Wire, the news blog of The Atlantic magazine. He has contributed to The Daily Beast, The Atlantic, The Daily, and the Huffington Post. Philip is based in New York City.
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