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Senate Candidates Tout Experience, New Vision For Kentucky In KET Debate

Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell and Democratic challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes squared off in their only televised matchup Monday night.

Credit Josh James / WUKY
Police clear the walkway for Alison Lundergan Grimes' arrival at KET debate

Energetic supporters from both camps covered the lawn outside KET Monday night, nearly all decked out in full campaign gear. Two young demonstrators held signs as they waited for their candidates to turn the corner into the parking lot.

"It's time for a new direction," Tyler Murphy told WUKY. "I'm a public school teacher, so I have a lot at stake in this election. I think Alison offers the best plan for our future."

Jimmy Wilson, a law student at the University of Kentucky, saw the momentum shifting the other direction.

"You know the saying in football... any Saturday night," he said. "It can be anybody's game depending what they end up saying, but yes I do believe Mitch has the upper hand. He has the experience and that's the reason we want to put him back into office." 

Soon the crowd, made up mostly of Grimes supporters, began choosing up sides as the groups lined the entrance into the building, often interrupting each other with chants and taunts across the walkway.

Shouts of "Team Mitch! Team Mitch!" clashed with warnings to "Watch out Mitch, here she comes!"

Credit Josh James / WUKY

It was a dynamic that also found its way into the debate.

While Grimes turned in a spirited performance, the debate also saw McConnell fighting back against a number of Democratic talking points. Not surprisingly, it didn’t take long for the conversation to wander toward coal – and the charge that Grimes was mum on the issue at a private fundraiser with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in June.

"I do speak for myself and I did have very strong words for Senator Reid regarding an energy philosophy that I believe he is misguided on as well as the president," Grimes said.

Responding, McConnell argued Grimes is not being straight with Kentuckians.

"It's pretty obvious, given where her support comes from, all the anti-coal activists in the country, that she's going to do their bidding," he countered.

Similar accusations arose on the question of whom Grimes pulled the level for in the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections. On that issue, the Democratic hopeful disputed the characterization that she’s been dodging the question.

"This is a matter of principle. Our constitution grants, here in Kentucky, the right for privacy at the ballot box," she argued.

Credit Josh James / WUKY

McConnell answered that there's "no sacred right to not announce how we vote," listing his choices for president in the last two elections.

Still, the five-term Republican senator was pressed to clarify some of his own positions, including what he believes should happen to Kynect, the state’s health insurance exchange, if a Republican Congress were to successfully repeal the Affordable Care Act.

"You would support the continuation of Kynect?" moderator Bill Goodman asked.

"Well, it's a state decision. Several states have-" the senator began.

"But would you support it?"

"Well, it's fine, yeah. I think it's fine to have a website," McConnell answered, adding that he believes those who are getting private insurance through Kynect are "paying more for less."

As for how she would treat health reform, Grimes reiterated her qualified support for parts of the controversial health care law.

"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 from their hand," she replied.

In one of the more testy exchanges, the candidates also sparred over McConnell’s finances and whether he, as Grimes claimed, has made himself wealthy on the backs of working Kentuckians. McConnell bristled at the charge, saying his opponent has consistently misled voters about where his money comes from.

By the end of the night, both camps were, as expected, claiming victory.

"Tonight was sort of a demonstration project in what clout and experience can do for the people of Kentucky," McConnell campaign manager Josh Homes told reporters. "I think Senator McConnell was extremely strong."

Grimes campaign head Jonathan Hurst called it a “tough night” for Minority Leader and a clear win for his candidate.

The ultimate winner, however, will be determined in a little over three weeks, when Kentuckians head to the polls. And with no major surprises or gaffes Monday night, it’s unclear how much the performances could move the needle in November.

Watch the full debate below.


Josh James fell in love with college radio at Western Kentucky University's student station, New Rock 92 (now Revolution 91.7). After working as a DJ and program director, he knew he wanted to come home to Lexington and try his hand in public radio.
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