The leader of a national labor union said Wednesday Kentucky’s U.S. Senate race is a top priority for organized labor that could define the country’s direction over the next two decades.
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka is visiting the state this week to rally working-class voters at a critical time for Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes’ bid to defeat Republican incumbent Mitch McConnell, who has widened a slight lead in the polls.
Trumka said thus far the Senate race has been about everything else but a referendum on McConnell, especially in regards to jobs and the economy.
“Of course Mitch McConnell wants this race to be about every but him and his record,” Trumka told WFPL in a one-on-one interview Wednesday.
“Mitch McConnell said what he’s going to do if he’s re-elected,” said Trumka. “He said there will never be a minimum wage increase, we won’t extend unemployment benefits, we won’t do infrastructure—‘I’ll stop all of those things.’ And that’s what he’s done.”
Labor leaders are hoping to change the narrative and build this race around a populist message in light of McConnell’s secretly recorded comments at a conservative summit this year, where he vehemently opposed many of those Democratic-led measures.
Trumka has already made stops in Owensboro and the Northern Kentucky area this week, and he plans to meet with dozens of union leaders in Louisville to organize a big push for Grimes in the coming weeks.
The national AFL-CIO is seeking to mobilize 350,000 union voters by getting volunteers to knock on doors, work phone bank and leaflet worksites.
The McConnell campaign declined to comment for this story, but pointed to the senator’s comments earlier this year indicating he would back a wage hike under better economic circumstances.
“The last thing we need in this jobless recovery is fewer jobs, and so I think it’s a really bad idea at this particular time,” McConnell said in May. “There may be other situations in which raising the minimum wage is a good idea. It’s not a good idea right now with the job loss that we’ve experienced and the high unemployment we have.”
Kentucky’s Senate race has also become a proxy battle in an ongoing debate about increased spending in U.S. elections.
More than any other lawmaker, McConnell is associated with opposing limitations on campaign spending, and his allies have poured millions in the race thus far.
The senator has benefited as a result, with allies such as the non-profit group Kentucky Opportunity Coalition bombarding voters with $5.5 million worth of ads since June.
It is expected the pro-McConnell organization, which has spent far more than any other outside group, could spend up to $2 million more in the remaining weeks of the election.
In early September, the AFL-CIO made a significant ad buy of its own targeting the so-called “dark money” from McConnell supporters, namely billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch, who are often the focus of Democratic attacks.
The AFL-CIO’s so-called “Koch Sisters” campaign has been running ads in Kentucky as a counter to those advertisements. A second round of those ads and more discussing others issues are planned as well.
Television ads from McConnell allies have worked well enough for Grimes’ campaign to be taken off their message by once again trying to create distance from President Obama.
In a new television spot airing this week, Grimes is firing a shotgun at moving targets while telling voters: “I’m not Barack Obama.” McConnell’s campaign relished the opportunity to respond in the advertisement, finding a nearly mirror image of Obama shooting a similar firearm.
Labor leaders behind Grimes said it is difficult to counter the deluge of campaign cash from McConnell supporters, but it’s a mistake for Democrats to follow his narrative.
Instead, the AFL-CIO want to put their focus on average Kentuckians and pocketbook issues.
“The average Kentuckian has seen his or her wages drop, their benefits be under attack, and less retirement security all under the tenure of Mitch McConnell,” said Trumka.
“People like the Koch brothers—who like McConnell because he votes for them 100 percent of the time—want to keep the issues away from that. What we’re trying to do is get the facts out and I know in my heart when you look at the two records, if you’re (a) worker it’s hands down you vote for Alison Grimes.”