LOUISVILLE, Kentucky — Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has some explaining for his wife's role as a board member of an organization that has spent $50 million to close coal-fired power plants, his Democratic challenger, Alison Lundergan Grimes, said Thursday.
Grimes declined to say, however, whether she thinks McConnell's wife, former U.S. labor secretary Elaine Chao, should resign from the board of Bloomberg Philanthropies, a charity founded by former New York City mayor and media mogul Michael Bloomberg.
"I think it's very disappointing news, and it raises serious questions that Sen. McConnell is going to have to answer," Grimes said after a Kentucky State Fair event, her first public comments about the matter.
McConnell's campaign hit back, saying it's President Barack Obama's policies that are ruining the coal sector and that Grimes is a supporter of the Democratic president, whose deep unpopularity in Kentucky is a drag on Grimes' campaign.
"Alison Lundergan Grimes was a delegate for President Obama after he declared his intention to bankrupt the coal industry," said McConnell campaign spokeswoman Allison Moore. "She can continue to attack Sen. McConnell's wife, but that doesn't change the fact that she has actively enabled the war on Kentucky coal."
Grimes said her pro-coal stance has been steadfast, and said she would work to protect coal jobs and safe working conditions in mines.
Coal policy has emerged as an overarching issue in Kentucky's hard-hitting Senate race, one of the most closely watched in the country as Republicans try to wrest away control from Democrats.
Obama's plan to impose stricter federal emissions standards on coal-fired power plants has drawn sharp criticism from McConnell and Grimes.
Kentucky is the nation's third-top coal producer, but eastern Kentucky has lost 7,000 coal-related jobs since 2012, the Kentucky Coal Association says.
Chao joined the board a year after Bloomberg Philanthropies announced in 2011 a four-year, $50 million commitment to the Sierra Club for its "Beyond Coal" campaign, which has the goal to "retire one-third of the nation's aging coal fleet by 2020," according to the group's website.
A trade group representing Kentucky's coal industry has defended McConnell, while the United Mine Workers of America — which backs Grimes — has criticized Chao's board membership.
Kentucky Coal Association President Bill Bissett noted that the Bloomberg Philanthropies contribution was made before Chao joined the board.
"Since her appointment, her involvement as a proven pro-coal person has given Kentuckians someone 'on the inside' of these boards who can express our views and explain the social and economic harm that has been caused in the past," Bissett said.
McConnell has said his wife will not resign from the board. He has said the organization does good things, but said his wife does not approve of its coal-related efforts.
The UMWA has said the spouse of a Kentucky politician should be expected to "choose more carefully" when taking a role with an organization that has "invested in the destruction of the American coal industry."
Meanwhile, Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear said Thursday that Chao's role with the organization is a legitimate campaign issue and suggested that McConnell's self-portrayal as a champion of Kentucky coal interests had taken a hit.
"Arguing that you're the champion of coal and then being together with groups ... that are anti-coal doesn't seem very consistent to me," Beshear said after the same state fair event that Grimes attended. "But the people of Kentucky will figure that out."