The U.S. Senate race in Kentucky has long been billed not only as one of the nation’s most competitive in this year’s midterms, but as potentially the most expensive ever.

Most political analysts say spending in the race between Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and state Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes (D-Ky.) could reach $100 million by Election Day. That would beat the current record for a Senate race, the $82 million spent in Massachusetts in 2012, when Democrat Elizabeth Warren defeated the Republican incumbent, then-Sen. Scott Brown.

With a truckload of money — $36 million — already raised by the two campaigns, and most polls showing a statistical dead heat, it’s perhaps not surprising that the battle between McConnell and Grimes has also turned into one of the nastiest campaigns in the U.S. this year.

Grimes is taking a familiar tack for a challenger, saying McConnell, a 30-year veteran of the Senate, has been in Washington too long, is out of touch with regular Kentuckians, and, as part of the leadership on Capitol Hill, has become part of the partisan gridlock that plagues the capital.

McConnell, meanwhile, says Grimes is nothing more than a liberal rubber stamp for President Barack Obama’s agenda, most of which is highly unpopular in Kentucky.

Coal Country

The two camps have traded jabs, barbs and counter-punches for weeks now on everything from Medicare, jobs, the Affordable Care Act — even that most hallowed of political touchstones, Kentucky basketball. And of course no political race in Kentucky would be complete without a fight over coal, with each campaign trying to convince voters that their candidate is the one committed to the state’s struggling coal industry.

In some ways, the race is following a national template of sorts in this year’s midterm elections: Republicans portraying Democrats as lackeys for an unpopular president — and Democrats running as far and as fast as they can from the same man. But even when the race mirrors that national theme, the issue of coal makes its way to the fore.

“[Grimes] has proven that she will say one thing to Kentuckians but does the opposite when she’s with her inner circle of supporters who have a long record of backing anti-coal, anti-Kentucky policies,” said McConnell campaign spokeswoman Allison Moore , referring not only to Obama but Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Warren. Warren, a rising star in her party, has campaigned with Democratic Senate candidates, including Grimes, in several battleground states.

Since entering the race, though, Grimes, 35, has been consistent in her opposition to Obama’s proposed regulations on coal-fired power plants. The proposal, energy trade groups say, would be devastating to Kentucky’s coal industry and would increase home heating prices on the poor.

“I strongly oppose President Obama’s attack on Kentucky’s energy industry,” Grimes has said. “This administration has taken direct aim at Kentucky’s coal industry, crippling our state’s largest source of domestic energy and threatening thousands of jobs.”

Still, the McConnell campaign says Grimes was silent on the issue before she got into the race. And it never fails to mention that she was a delegate to the 2012 Democratic convention that nominated the president for a second term.

Both candidates are trying to “exploit the coal issue for its symbolism,” says D. Stephen Voss, an associate professor at the University of Kentucky’s Department of Political Science.

“McConnell has attempted to use coal as the centerpiece of an argument that big government interferes in negative ways in American life,” Voss says. “Grimes has attempted to use coal as a simple way to convince voters that she will not be a consistent ally of President Obama [and] Harry Reid.”

Eastern Kentucky’s coal country has long been a bedrock of Democratic support, and that remains the case for local offices. But in statewide elections, the areas along the West Virginia, Virginia and Tennessee borders have voted increasingly for Republicans. That, analysts say, is a problem for Grimes, who needs to run more like those local candidates by presenting herself as a native Kentuckian first, one who stands with the coal miners and other workers who have struggled to keep their jobs.

“Grimes needs to distance herself as much as possible from unpopular national Democrats,” Voss says.

In many ways, McConnell, 72, has the opposite problem. It’s not the national GOP Kentucky voters have a problem with — it’s more McConnell himself.

“McConnell is seemingly vulnerable because he’s in the congressional leadership and easily connected to the great amount of dysfunction in Washington,” says Geoffrey Skelley, an analyst at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics and associate editor of Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball, an election forecasting site based at U.Va.

“Correspondingly, his approval rating has been as far down as the low 30s in the last year or so and his favorable rating is also very low. So McConnell is not a terribly popular individual, and really, never has been.”

Medi‘scare’?

While coal will remain an issue throughout the campaign, the race has recently centered less on regional themes, and more on national issues such as Medicare.

Grimes has attacked McConnell for his support of House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan’s 2011 budget proposal, saying the plan would have raised costs on seniors by $6,000. In a controversial television ad that began airing earlier this month, Grimes sits with Don Disney, a retired coal miner, who looks into the camera and asks McConnell “how you could have voted to raise my Medicare costs by $6,000? How are my wife and I supposed to afford that?”

The ad, which got a “false” rating from PolitiFact, is misleading at best, analysts say. For one thing, anyone 55 and older would not have been affected by the plan’s Medicare model. Disney is 75, so under no circumstances would his Medicare costs increase under the Ryan proposal.