BEATTYVILLE, Ky. -- The story in the Beattyville Enterprise was just a few paragraphs long, tucked in the corner of the weekly community newspaper beside the lead story about a local murder investigation. But the item, quoting Sen. Mitch McConnell as saying it was "not my job" to bring jobs to the region, has become the latest flash point in the high-stakes battle between the Senate's top Republican and his potential Democratic opponent.
The Enterprise, a paper so small it's accessible online only through its Facebook page, asked McConnell as he visited Lee County last week what he would do to help the area's struggling economy.
"Economic development is a Frankfort issue," McConnell is quoted as saying, referring to Kentucky's capital. "That is not my job. It is the primary responsibility of the state Commerce Cabinet."
The campaign of Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes, Kentucky's secretary of state, seized on the item, saying McConnell's comment "reinforces the fact that the only job he cares about is his own."
"As the only candidate in this race to put forth a comprehensive jobs plan, creating good-paying jobs for Kentuckians and growing our middle class will be my top priorities as the Commonwealth's next U.S. senator," Grimes said. "It is reprehensible that Mitch McConnell believes that it is not his job to help Kentucky families who are struggling to make ends meet."
McConnell's office takes issue with the item, saying his message to the reporter "got lost in translation."
"I visited Lee County to talk about a top priority of mine: jobs," McConnell said in a statement released by his office. "I was surprised to see a headline about my visit that sent the exact opposite message to the one I was trying to convey. Encouraging positive economic development and job growth is at the center of what I do every day."
McConnell is running what is arguably his toughest reelection campaign this year. Before he has the chance to face Grimes in what would be one of the most closely-watched contests of the cycle, he must dispatch Republican challenger Matt Bevin in the state's May 20 primary. Polls show him comfortably ahead of Bevin, who is dealing with a controversy of his own after he attended at a rally in support of cockfighting.
McConnell has deep political roots in the state and deep pockets for the campaign, having raised more than $20 million so far. But even a dust-up like this has the potential to knock him off his stride.
The brief interview with the Enterprise came before McConnell addressed a luncheon at a local community center. The reporter who spoke to the senator did not stay to hear his remarks.
The Los Angeles Times was present for the event and three others McConnell had on his official schedule last Friday. His remarks at each offer a fuller picture of how the incumbent argues his status in Washington as a potential majority leader in a Republican-led Senate next year is an answer to the state's economic woes.
At the Beattyville event, McConnell said the economy was experiencing "the slowest bounce back after a deep recession since World War II," and blamed what he called the "western European experiment" in liberal policies. McConnell argued that Kentucky has been particularly hard-hit as a result of President Obama's "War on Coal."
"Nobody has been more seriously and adversely affected by the overreach of this administration than those of us in central Appalachia," McConnell said, criticizing the administration's "ideological crusade" against the coal industry. "They don't want to look in the eyes of the coal mining families, or ask the county judge how he's going to do without the severance tax revenue. … They don't want to be anywhere near you. Well let me tell you this, this isn't over. I've said it before and I'll say it again: In two and a half years Barack Obama will be gone, and the coal will still be in the ground."
McConnell noted that when the Environmental Protection Agency was considering new regulations that would likely make it difficult to open new coal plants, it denied his request to hold a field hearing in Kentucky. "So I had my own," he said, "and heard from the real people affected by the war on coal. People who lost their jobs. People who were hopeless."
McConnell said the ultimate answer for the region was "a new administration with a different attitude," suggesting there was little in the way of immediate economic initiatives that could help the area. In the meantime, the best thing for Kentucky would be to keep him in the Senate, he said.
"I'm currently the leader of the minority. If you're a sports fan, think of me as the defensive coordinator," he said. "You can score on defense, but not as often, and it's a lot harder to score on defense. I'd like to be the offensive coordinator. The offensive coordinator gets to call the plays, gets to set the agenda, gets to decide what we're going to talk about in the United States Senate. And begin to determine the direction of the country. So this November, we have a chance to put a Kentuckian in charge of the agenda of the United States Senate."
At an earlier event at a coal producer in Irvine, McConnell expanded on how a Republican majority Senate, with him as its leader, would be able to pressure the president to change policies that were harming the state's economy through the appropriations process.
"The way to begin to take America back is to take the Senate in November of '14," he said. "It doesn't solve every problem. But it's a beginning, first step to take back our country and to put it in the hands of people who think we ought to be an opportunity society."
At his final event at a senior center in the town of Booneville, McConnell had some of his sharpest language about the choice facing voters in Kentucky in the fall, and warned of a bruising campaign.
"I'm the only Republican running this year that every crazy liberal in the country's heard of," he said. "They'll be sending their money -- they already are -- to my opponent. She'll be arguing to all of you that she'd be a new face. And I agree, she would be a new face. But think about it this way: a new face for what? A new face for no change. A new face for the same majority, the same Senate, the same support for Barack Obama. A new face for the status quo."