KY ad war: McConnell hits Grimes for taking public salary while campaigning; but he does, too

Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell is criticizing his Democratic opponent for drawing her state paycheck while away from work to campaign. Left unsaid in the new TV ad is that McConnell appears to be taking his government salary while campaigning, too.

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The ad was among those fired in a new salvo this week in one of the nation's fiercest — and most expensive — races for U.S. Senate. It's a contest Republicans are counting on as they reach for the six seats they need to take control of the chamber and boost McConnell to majority leader.

For the first time, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee this week began spending money to support their nominee, Alison Lundergan Grimes, in the purchase of $1 million worth of ads targeting McConnell. A pro-McConnell super-PAC, one piece of an aggressive finance effort, countered Wednesday with its own $1 million ad buy.

Most of McConnells' ads relentlessly try to tie Grimes to President Barack Obama, who is deeply unpopular in Kentucky on issues such as energy, health care and immigration.

But an ad titled "Absences" took a different approach. In it, an announcer claims that Grimes, Kentucky's full-time secretary of state, is campaigning on the taxpayer dime.

"Grimes still takes her salary, while her parking space at the state capitol sits empty, day, after day," the narrator intones in the ad over a series of photos of an empty parking space. The ad comes after Grimes ad last month titled "Where Was He?" that accused McConnell of missing hundreds of Senate committee meetings.

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Not mentioned in McConnell's spot is that he is apparently still receiving his Senate salary of $193,400. When asked by the AP, two spokespeople for McConnell's campaign wouldn't say if McConnell was returning his pay while campaigning.

In a statement, McConnell's campaign said the difference between him and Grimes is that he is present for almost every Senate vote in Washington. Grimes, an executive officer of the state who is paid $114,000, has missed workdays to campaign for his seat, they said.

Also unsaid in McConnell's ad is that senators only cast votes when the chamber is in session, and the Senate has only been in session 26 weeks this year.

Senators get paid whether the chamber is in session or in recess — as it is now, mostly so that members can be at home campaigning. The argument they should go unpaid while campaigning is rare, if not unheard of.

"Recess weeks are usually taken up with campaigning, fundraising, town hall meetings, and codels (congressional delegation travel), in addition to other non-floor-related Senate business," said Betty Koed, an associate historian for the U.S. Senate. "It is sometimes hard to separate session business from recess business."

Complaining about Grimes's work-campaign balance is "easy for him to say when Congress has set things up to make it easy" for incumbents, said Stephen Voss, political science professor at the University of Kentucky. "They have used the institution's rules and resources to help build up an advantage for (lawmakers) when they run for re-election. Whereas the state of Kentucky has not set up the secretary of state's office to make it easier for them to seek other jobs."

McConnell held three official Senate events on Friday before appearing in a parade for a campaign event in the evening followed by two more campaign events on Saturday. He often talks about his re-election during his official Senate events, including telling a Lexington cable advertising company that the only way to change the country in 2014 is to change the Senate, a phrase McConnell often uses in his stump speech.

McConnell has held campaign events during the workweek, including a highly publicized three-day bus tour through the coal fields in certain parts of eastern and western Kentucky in August while the Senate was in recess.

Grimes would not say how many days she has missed to campaign, but McConnell's team highlights her absence from work by pointing to at least 20 fundraisers she has attended during the workweek.

The Grimes campaign and her state office did not respond to questions about how she manages the Secretary of State office's 32 employees and $3.4 million budget while she is away campaigning.

But her campaign did say she has not missed a meeting as chairwoman of the state Board of Elections that oversees the state's compliance with state and federal election laws.

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Associated Press writer Philip Elliott contributed reporting from Washington, D.C.