Experience counts: How U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell's 30 years in Congress gives him debate advantage

09/20/2014 06:20 PM

With 45 days before the election, the prospects of Republican U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and his Democratic challenger, Alison Lundergan Grimes, debating the issues for a statewide audience beyond Oct. 13’s episode of “Kentucky Tonight” appear increasingly unlikely.

McConnell this week sidestepped a challenge from Grimes to a debate at the University of Pikeville hosted by The Appalachian News-Express, with a previously scheduled bus tour keeping him from the forum. Grimes told Pure Politics Thursday she will be there regardless of McConnell’s absence. Although they’ve traded barbs twice at the annual Fancy Farm picnic in western Kentucky, the candidates have only debated policy issues at the Kentucky Farm Bureau’s ‘Measure the Candidates’ forum in August, in August, with “Kentucky Tonight” the last debate scheduled between now and the Nov. 4 election.

Experience is a major factor in McConnell’s corner as he readies for the only real debate with Grimes in this election, national and state observers say. McConnell has debated the likes of former U.S. Sen. Dee Huddleston, former Louisville Mayor Harvey Sloane and Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear during his five successful Senate campaigns, and he often practices his oratory skills in speeches on the Senate floor on a variety of topics.

With a growing lead in public polls, McConnell also has an advantage in that he isn’t pressured to accept any new debates this close to Election Day, according to observers.

“He’s been around a lot longer than she has,” said Kyle Kondik, managing editor of the nonpartisan Sabato’s Crystal Ball produced by the University of Virginia Center for Politics. “It would stand to reason that someone like McConnell would have a greater command of the material. That’s not an insult to Grimes. It’s just a question of experience.”

Grimes’ inexperience in debates also gives McConnell an edge over his 35-year-old challenger, who is in her first term as Kentucky secretary of state, University of Kentucky political science professor Steve Voss told Pure Politics in a phone interview.

“I’ve never seen her debate,” Voss said. “So far as I know almost no one has seen her debate, and so they’ve got to be factoring in how well can she do this? Is it one of her strengths, or is it a place where she’s likely to not make a good showing?

“The one thing we know about McConnell is he’s been doing this so long that in an essence he’s been doing his homework for many years whereas she has to do her homework in a relatively short amount of time to go toe-to-toe with him in a debate, and none of us can know whether she’s up to that or not.”

Les Fugate, a former chief political aide to former Republican Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson, said debates represent opportunities for candidates “to mess up.”

“Campaigns these days are so scripted that that’s always a concern,” he said. “Again, McConnell is one of the best in the country at this, and so I think there’s a lot less risk for him because he debates on a daily basis when he’s on the Senate floor. He’s coming up with messaging himself. He is a political strategist himself, so he’s doing that all the time.”

Such debates can be “much more intimidating” for relative newcomers, Fugate said.

He recalled prepping Grayson for his debates against U.S. Sen. Rand Paul in the 2010 GOP Senate primary by having Grayson answer policy questions during fundraisers.

“It’s a little bit unnatural sometimes when you’re a first-time candidate for a race this big to talk about those issues, and she just doesn’t have the practice at it,” Fugate said. “That’s not to say that some day she couldn’t be great at it, but she just doesn’t have that practice.”

Longtime Democratic political consultant Danny Briscoe said McConnell may prefer not to debate because he’s perceived as the leader in the race in recent public polls.

“I don’t think he’s going to unless somehow it becomes an issue that harms him,” Briscoe said. “I think if it did he’d debate her in a minute, but I don’t think the public is either engaged or cares, so what’s the fallout if he says no? Apparently there’s not much.”

Still, McConnell’s edge in political experience could bite him in a debate, Voss said.

“The policy world is very complex, and it’s a massive amount of information,” he said. “It’s just easy in an unpredictable setting to make a mistake. I mean, there are debates where people have pronounced names incorrectly, where they get this or that detail wrong where it seems as though they surely ought to know if they’re in power making decisions.

“It’s just way too easy to come up with a gaffe or two that then could be publicized in advertisements and in the news. If you’re in the lead, the unpredictable is your enemy.”

Kevin Wheatley

Kevin Wheatley is a reporter for Pure Politics. He joined cn|2 in September 2014 after five years at The State Journal in Frankfort, where he covered Kentucky government and politics. You can reach him at kevin.wheatley@charter.com or 502-792-1135 and follow him on Twitter at @KWheatley_cn2.


Subscribe to email updates.

Subscribe and get the latest political intelligence delivered to your inbox.