McConnell, Grimes clash on "Kentucky Tonight"

10/13/2014 11:50 PM

LEXINGTON — The lone televised debate between Kentucky U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell and his Democratic opponent, Alison Lundergan Grimes, covered little new ground as the candidates recycled points voiced extensively on the campaign trail, but the hourlong exchange on Kentucky Educational Television Monday featured some testy exchanges as tempers flared between the two.

Viewers didn’t have to wait long either, as Grimes suggested McConnell became “a multimillionaire on the backs of hard-working Kentuckians“ while defending her position on increasing the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 early in “Kentucky Tonight” hosted by KET’s Bill Goodman.

“That’s what America’s about, but he’s gotten rich while consistently voting to keep Kentucky poor, and we can’t have a senator like that,” she said.

The smile that had been on McConnell’s face quickly dissipated. “I can’t let that stand,” he said, noting the charge earned four “Pinnochios” from The Washington Post’s fact checker while Grimes interjected, “Is he not a multimillionaire?”

“She knows that that’s a result of an inheritance that my wife got when her mother passed away, and she’s consistently gone around, Bill, all over the state and suggested that I’ve somehow enriched myself at public expense. Let me tell you, her family’s made more money off the government in the last 10 years than I’ve been paid in salary in all my time in the Senate, and it’s an outrageous suggestion. She knows it’s wrong.”

McConnell alluded to $5.78 million in federal contracts held by S.R. Holding Co., owned by former Kentucky Democratic Party Chairman Jerry Lundergan, information that was readily available through campaign staff after the debate concluded.

When McConnell voiced support for an expanded earned income tax credit, Grimes interjected.

“That’s amazing to hear the senator say that the earned income tax credit is something that he thinks should be grown because he’s supported budgets that actually slash that as well as the childcare tax credit,” she said.

Grimes “doesn’t have any idea what she’s talking about,” McConnell said, calling himself a longtime supporter of the earned income tax credit. When Grimes said McConnell voted for spending plans that reduced funding for the credit, McConnell leaned on an oft-repeated talking point in Grimes’ political inexperience.

“With all due respect, in a large budget vote there are probably things in there that you can pluck that any one of us might not have preferred,” he said.

“… Secretary Grimes has not had this experience yet, but when you put together a whole budget, you’re not going to approve of absolutely everything in there. What the budget is designed to do is to put an overall cap on what we’re going to spend, and you can’t serve on a legislative body and not occasionally cast a vote for something that you’re not crazy about because there are other things in the measure that you like.”

Josh Holmes, McConnell’s acting campaign manager, said after the debate his team expected an especially fiery showing from Grimes. McConnell did not take questions from state and national press.

“She knows that she’s got a gap that she needs to close, so we thought that she would be aggressive, and I think she was,” Holmes said.

Jonathan Hurst, Grimes’ campaign manager, deflected a question on Grimes’ aggressiveness in the debate. Grimes, like McConnell, did not address the media after “Kentucky Tonight,” greeting a throng of supporters outside KET studios.

“I don’t know what the Washington consultants are telling our opponent’s campaign, but I can tell you what they’re telling ours,” Hurst said, calling McConnell’s performance “testy.” “We’re talking to real Kentuckians, and this debate was to show the real contrast between the two campaigns.

“… Look, he had a tough night tonight. Our entire campaign has been about the contrast between these two individuals, and tonight Alison Lundergan Grimes showed exactly the strong command that she has in this race.”

On the issues

McConnell and Grimes sparred on a number of issues, primarily the nation’s economy, Kentucky’s coal industry and the Affordable Care Act.

A viewer-submitted question on what they hoped would be their signature accomplishment at the end of a six-year term if elected elicited the lone area of agreement between the two: creating jobs.

Grimes said she would work to grow the country’s middle class, citing her jobs plan and her support for pocketbook issues such as pay equity for women workers and increasing the minimum wage.

“I believe, unlike Mitch McConnell, that it is a senator’s number one priority to bring jobs back here to Kentucky, and I hope that we will have worked full force across the aisle with not just Democrats but Republicans and independents,” Grimes said. “As a senator, that’s how you get things done, not just in Frankfort but in Washington, and that’s what’s been missing.”

McConnell, who is hoping the GOP picks up six seats in the U.S. Senate that triggers his ascension to the chamber’s majority leader, said the possible promotion would reap benefits for Kentucky and the country as he would push initiatives like the Keystone Pipeline and combat the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s regulations on greenhouse gas emissions.

“We need to lift people up, and the only way to do that is through a vibrant private sector,” McConnell said. “This administration has been a disaster at getting our economy going. It’s been doubly acute here in Kentucky, and the statistics you indicate underscore that, because of the assault on the coal industry.”

Grimes again refused to say whether she voted for President Barack Obama, who McConnell has blamed for the decline of Kentucky’s coal industry, because she believes in a voter’s right to privacy at the ballot box. When asked the difference between an Obama Democrat and a Clinton Democrat, which Grimes has frequently called herself on the campaign trail, she cited the growth of the middle class under the former president.

But McConnell said there is “no difference” between the two.

“The Clintons support, for example, what the EPA is doing in the war on coal,” he said. “There’s not a dime’s worth of difference between a Clinton Democrat and an Obama Democrat.”

McConnell himself deflected a question on his views on climate change, instead saying his main priority as a senator is fighting for the state’s coal industry.

When the debate shifted to the Affordable Care Act, McConnell doubled down on his stance that Kentucky could still operate kynect, the state-based insurance marketplace, should Congress repeal the new healthcare law.

“Kynect is a website,” he said. “It was paid for by a 200-and-some-odd-million-dollar grant from the federal government. The website can continue, but in my view, the best interest of the country would be achieved by pulling out Obamacare root and branch.”

While Grimes said she supported the law, she conceded that it must be improved. As an example, she said the government should extend the grandfather clause, allowing citizens to keep their pre-Affordable Care Act health coverage as originally promised.

“This is a matter of standing up for 500,000 Kentuckians, over half a million Kentuckians,” Grimes said. “There’s work that we have to do to fix the Affordable Care Act, but we have to have a senator that actually realizes what the realities are here in Kentucky, and the fictional fantasyland that Mitch McConnell is in, it doesn’t show the statistics that are here in this state.

“We have over a half a million Kentuckians who for the first time ever are filling prescriptions, they’re going to the doctor, they’re getting checkups. I will not be a senator that rips that insurance for their hands.”

McConnell’s response drew a swift reaction from Gov. Steve Beshear, whose administration created the exchange and chose to expand Medicaid eligibility, saying McConnell “misled Kentucky.”

“Mitch told Kentuckians he’d keep the website up while pulling the plug on federal funding, tax credits and tearing down a marketplace that has made Kentucky a model of success for the nation — all to advance his partisan political agenda that has Washington in gridlock to the point of paralysis,” Beshear said in a statement through the Kentucky Democratic Party. “In the Senate, Alison will work to fix any flaws in the law and bring Kentucky’s record of success to show Washington and the rest of the nation.”

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 or 502-792-1135 and follow him on Twitter at @KWheatley_cn2.


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