There were a few skirmishes but little new ground was broken as U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes delivered their well-worn attack lines to each other’s faces Monday night on statewide television.
In the only scheduled televised debate of Kentucky’s U.S. Senate election, McConnell continued his central campaign theme of tying Grimes to the national Democratic Party and President Barack Obama, while Grimes assailed McConnell as having “gone Washington” and being beholden to the Koch brothers.
There were no obvious missteps – other than those they have already endured – by either candidate as they debated for nearly 60 minutes on KET’s “Kentucky Tonight” program.
Grimes, Kentucky’s secretary of state, struck an aggressive pose as she repeatedly interrupted and lobbed attacks at McConnell, who often gave long, lecture-style answers. He retorted on multiple occasions that the claims being made by Grimes had been given “four Pinocchios” by The Washington Post’s fact-checker. (The newspaper gives that rating to claims that are “whoppers.”)
Grimes again refused to say whether she voted for Obama in 2008 or 2012, saying that as the state’s chief elections officer, she has a duty to protect the “sanctity” of the ballot box and Americans’ right to a secret ballot.
“There’s no reluctance,” Grimes said Monday night. “This is a matter of principle.”
That is a change from when Grimes told the show “Ballot Bomb,” a KET program set to air later this month, that she voted for former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the 2008 Democratic presidential primary.
Grimes said she has “differences with the president,” specifying that she disagrees with Obama’s energy policy and use of executive orders, but she argued that the president isn’t on the ballot.
“It’s myself and Sen. McConnell, and he doesn’t want to take responsibility for all that’s wrong in Washington, D.C.,” Grimes said.
After Grimes referred to herself as a “Clinton Democrat,” host Bill Goodman asked her what the difference was between an Obama Democrat and a Clinton Democrat, leading Grimes to answer “growing the middle class the right way.”
McConnell responded: “There’s not a dime’s worth of difference.”
For his part, McConnell held fast to his opposition to the federal health care law, which he said had “rimracked” Kentucky hospitals, though host Bill Goodman worked hard to explore whether McConnell would support keeping Kynect, the health insurance exchange Kentucky implemented under the federal law.
The senator referred to Kynect as a website that is being funded by a federal grant, leaving the impression that it could continue if the law were repealed.
When Goodman asked if McConnell would support continuing Kynect, McConnell said: “That’s fine. Yeah, I think it’s fine to have a website.”
In May, the Post’s fact-checker wrote that “it is not credible for McConnell to suggest that the state exchange would survive without the broad health care system constructed by the Affordable Care Act, such as an individual mandate and subsidies to buy insurance.”
Goodman also pushed McConnell on his retort that he’s “not a scientist” in response to questions about whether he believes in climate change.
“My job is to look out for Kentucky’s coal miners,” McConnell responded.
Grimes said deep job losses in the coal industry have happened on McConnell’s watch despite his repeated efforts to blame it on “this administration over and over again.”
“He fails to see he has a role in all the jobs that have been lost in our state,” Grimes said.
McConnell replied: “Secretary Grimes, if I may: Congress didn’t pass what the president’s doing. We defeated it.”
In another familiar attack, Grimes blasted McConnell and his wife, former U.S. Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao, for becoming multimillionaires while in office. She also criticized Chao’s service on the boards of Bloomberg Philanthropies and Wells Fargo, which Grimes has described as being anti-coal.
A number of independent fact-checkers have found Grimes’ claim that McConnell became “a multimillionaire on the backs of hardworking Kentuckians” to be false, and McConnell appeared eager to point that out, noting that the money was a result of an inheritance after Chao’s mother died.
He called the claim “outrageous” and said “I can’t let that stand.”
Grimes at one point referred to wealthy conservative donors Charles and David Koch as McConnell’s “family.” Grimes said McConnell was asking the brothers “to help him buy his way back to Washington, D.C.” in a secret recording of McConnell speaking at one of the Koch brothers’ summits.
After McConnell said he had not said anything different in private than he had in public, Grimes responded: “So you were consistently against helping people here in Kentucky getting a living wage?”
Stephen Voss, a political science professor at the University of Kentucky, said afterward he thought McConnell “owned the debate.”
“Grimes allowed herself to recede too often, turning the show into a lecture from McConnell to the moderator,” Voss said. “McConnell was able to sound informed and authoritative, even when he delivered standard Republican talking points that are easily rebutted because they’re so familiar.”
KET said it provided credentials for 60 media representatives, including some from Australia, Denmark, Germany and Japan. KET officials said it was the largest group of media at a KET debate.
On Tuesday, McConnell and Grimes will head to different parts of the state to try to sell their closing arguments.
McConnell has a series of official events in Eastern Kentucky, where, according to his Senate office, he will “visit with Kentuckians and discuss issues of importance to the commonwealth and our nation.”
Grimes will hold events in Northern Kentucky, kicking things off early Tuesday afternoon by holding a news conference with U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio. On Wednesday night, Grimes will campaign with Hillary Clinton in Louisville.
Also this week, both campaigns will release their third-quarter fundraising numbers.