LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's prominent role in the federal response to the coronavirus pandemic has become Topic A in his bitter campaign against Democratic challenger Amy McGrath, providing fodder for both sides.
McConnell boasts about the billions in relief money delivered to Kentucky, while McGrath claims the Republican senator has put corporate interests ahead of out-of-work Kentuckians.
Dueling TV commercials in the high-spending Kentucky campaign have crystallized an issue that is dominating the political landscape heading toward the November election.
In McConnell's latest campaign ad debuting Tuesday, several people credit the aid they received from the Paycheck Protection Program for saving their small businesses and preserving jobs. As a western Kentucky barbecue restaurant owner put it: the PPP “saved our butts."
The commercial appears aimed at countering a recent McGrath ad claiming McConnell prioritized his “special interest friends" over the plight of unemployed Kentuckians.
With coronavirus cases surging in Kentucky, putting the state's tenuous economic recovery at risk, the pandemic looms as the dominant issue as McConnell seeks a seventh term and McGrath tries to unseat him in an underdog campaign backed by a massive campaign fund.
“This is an issue that combines the two issues that are typically one and two for Kentucky voters — jobs and health care," said longtime Kentucky political commentator Al Cross.
The bickering comes as the Senate prepares to discuss a new round of federal virus-related aid. McConnell met with President Donald Trump at the White House on Monday to discuss the next package. In a Senate speech Tuesday, McConnell echoed messaging coming from the White House when he argued for the need to keep the economy open even as coronavirus cases spike in some parts of the country, including his home state.
“The American people cannot completely stop building their lives until a vaccine is available," he said. “The United States of America was not built for a defensive crouch. We need to stand up an educational system and an economy that works for workers and families in the meantime. We need to find the right middle ground that is smart and safe, but also more sustainable."
Since the spring, McConnell has crisscrossed Kentucky to thank front-line health care workers for combating the virus and tout the federal assistance flowing into the state. He's also promoted mask wearing in public as a crucial behavior to help curb the virus' spread.
McGrath has said the next relief package should include funding for a federal testing and tracing program, another infusion of money for state and local governments and an extension of the extra $600 a week in unemployment benefits. She said there have been “holes" in the federal response and accuses McConnell of failing to standing up to Trump on the issue.
“All along, throughout this coronavirus, we have seen mixed messages from the administration," she said Monday. “We have seen leadership downplay the pandemic, we've seen leadership say that it’s going to go away and all of this stuff, mixed messages the whole time.”
McConnell campaign spokeswoman Kate Cooksey pushed back against what she called McGrath's “deceptive coronavirus narrative" as the Democratic challenger criticizes parts of the federal response. She said McGrath should “try talking with the thousands of Kentuckians ... whose livelihoods have been saved thanks to Senator McConnell’s leadership."
McConnell’s campaign noted that the billions of dollars in federal relief funneled into Kentucky supported hospitals, state and local governments, community health centers, schools, housing programs, businesses and in the form of direct payments to families.
McGrath's campaign has tried to portray the longtime senator as a Washington insider out of touch with Kentuckians struggling to make ends meet amid the pandemic. The new McConnell ad fails to mention that Paycheck Protection Program benefits are set to expire in a few weeks, said McGrath campaign spokesman Terry Sebastian.
“Kentuckians have had enough of Mitch McConnell and will come out in November to make their voices heard,” Sebastian said.
Follow AP coverage of the pandemic at https://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak.