McConnell, McGrath face off in debate on WKYT

Published: Oct. 12, 2020 at 10:08 AM EDT|Updated: Oct. 12, 2020 at 9:38 PM EDT
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LEXINGTON, Ky. (WKYT/Associated Press) - Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Democratic challenger Amy McGrath sparred Monday evening over the federal response to the coronavirus crisis, the Supreme Court nomination fight and the Republican incumbent’s decadeslong record in a hard-hitting televised debate in Kentucky.

McGrath, a retired Marine combat pilot, was aggressive from the outset in blaming the senator for the lack of another round of federal relief for a pandemic-battered economy, calling it a “dereliction of duty.” McConnell blamed congressional Democrats for the stalemated negotiations.

In a biting exchange later, McConnell touted his top Senate leadership post as a valuable asset for Kentucky and fired back at McGrath’s constant attacks on his Senate record, saying: “I think her entire campaign is: she’s a Marine, she’s a mom and I’ve been there too long.”

McGrath responded: “Senator, you’ve been there for 36 years. How’s it looking, Kentucky?” She pointed to the state’s stubbornly high cancer and diabetes rates along with lack of broadband access and well-paying jobs in some parts of the state.

McConnell countered that he’s delivered billions of dollars in federal money that McGrath couldn’t replicate if she replaces him and takes her place as a freshman on the “back bench” in the Senate.

The debate offered McGrath her best chance for a breakthrough against McConnell, who has long dominated Kentucky’s political landscape and has consistently led in polling as he seeks a seventh term. It was their first and potentially only faceoff of the campaign. In-person early voting begins Tuesday, and many Kentuckians are already filling out absentee ballots.

The debate comes at a crucial time for McConnell, who is running his own race while also focused on keeping his job as majority leader as the GOP struggles to retain control of the Senate.

When asked about the federal response to the coronavirus outbreak, McGrath gave President Donald Trump and Congress an “F,” before turning her attention to McConnell.

“His one job is to help America through this crisis right now in passing legislation to keep our economy afloat so that people can make ends meet,” she said. “And instead of doing that, he is trying to ram through a Supreme Court nominee right now, instead of negotiating, which is what he should have been doing all summer long to make that happen.”

For his part, McConnell said he offered another coronavirus relief bill about a month ago that stalled when it drew no Democratic support in the Senate.

“I think they don’t want a solution prior to the election,” he said of congressional Democrats.

The Kentucky rivals delved into the Supreme Court nomination battle under way in Washington. The nominee, Amy Coney Barrett, presented her approach to the law as conservative and fair on Monday at the start of the confirmation hearings, while angry Democrats, powerless to stop her, cast her as a threat to Americans' health care coverage during the pandemic.

McGrath said there should be no vote on filling a Supreme Court vacancy so close to the election, and criticized what she saw as McConnell’s inconsistency on the matter. Four years ago, McConnell blocked then-President Barack Obama’s choice of Judge Merrick Garland to fill another Supreme Court vacancy in a presidential election year.

“Look, four years ago, Senator McConnell said by the McConnell rule during an election year, ‘We don’t vote on a nominee, let the people decide,’” McGrath said. “Well, right now, with 22 days to an election, we should let the people decide.”

McConnell, who is leading the fast-track confirmation process for Barrett, called her an “extraordinary nominee” and an “accomplished scholar.”

The two also did not shy away from one shrinking industry-- coal.

“At the beginning of the Obama administration, 50% was supplied by coal fire generation. At the end of the Obama administration it was 30%. It wreaked havoc on coal county and left us to clean up the mess,” McConnell said.

“I think it just starts with being honest with people. I was always taught to be honest with people in the Marine Corps. The decline of coal is a function of renewable energy being cheaper. It’s a function of automation of fracking, which Senator McConnell pushed for, but we have got to have a plan for the future,” McGrath said.

The hourlong debate was aired on Gray Television’s Kentucky-based stations. It came near the end of a big-spending campaign that has been waged in distance, with the two sparring in hard-hitting TV ads.

The rivals debated at WKYT, and the Lexington station took a number of precautions in response to the coronavirus. Kentucky is in the midst of another spike of COVID-19 cases.

As the moderator of Monday’s debate, WKYT’s Bill Bryant was the only other person in the studio.

  • Gray Television and WKYT have followed CDC and state public health guidance on COVID-19 safety protocols since the pandemic began.
  • Anyone entering a Gray facility must be free of COVID-19 symptoms for at least 10 days and had their temperature taken at the door.
  • During the debate, only the moderator and candidates were in the studio, which uses robotic cameras, WKYT news director Robert Thomas said. They were be at least 20 feet from one another and plexiglass shields were on the sides of the desks where the candidates were seated.
  • As an added precaution, all employees scheduled to work in WKYT’s building during the debate were tested.
  • Also, each campaign was asked to keep its number of guests to a minimum.

At the end of the debate each candidate was asked if they would like to answer questions from journalists. McConnell said no, and McGrath said yes. WKYT’s Nick Oliver asked her why Kentuckians should put someone new in Washington and gamble on a new face of Kentucky.

“Well, my simple response to my fellow Kentuckians is that if you are better off, he is your man. But for many people in Kentucky, things are not getting any better,” McGrath said.

Analysts across the country are watching the race between Sen. McConnell and retired Lieutenant Colonel McGrath carefully.

“However Kentucky votes, they do happen to have a senator that has an enormous amount of power because he’s the Senate majority leader,” said Gray Media’s Chief National Political Analyst Greta Van Susteren.

Copyright 2020 WKYT. All rights reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this story.