Takeaways from last week’s Senatorial debate

Mitch McConnell speaks during the debate between Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Democratic opponent Amy McGrath on Monday, Oct. 12, 2020, at the WKYT studio in Lexington, Kentucky. Photo by Michael Clubb | Staff

Natalie Parks

22 days before the election, Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell and his Democratic challenger, retired Lt. Colonel Amy McGrath, met for the first and so far only debate of the fall campaign.

The debate, hosted by WKYT and sponsored by UK’s Student Government Association, was held in Lexington last Monday, Oct. 12. McConnell, a Republican, was first elected as the U.S. Senator from Kentucky in 1984 ; McGrath ran against Andy Barr for 6th Congressional district in 2018 and lost. This election cycle she defeated Charles Booker in the Democratic primary to challenge the incumbent McConnell.

Bill Byrant moderated the hour-long event, reminding the candidates of their 60 second time limit for a response and 30 seconds for a rebuttal. Over the course of 12 questions and closing remarks, several themes emerged for a Senatorial race closely watched in Kentucky and the nation.

COVID-19 relief bill sticking point for candidates

The first ten minutes of the debate laid out the groundwork for the night’s key battle – COVID-19 relief bills. McGrath called McConnell’s failure to help pass a follow-up aid plan and “absolute dereliction of duty”, whereas McConnell laid the blame squarely on Democrats for refusing to work across the aisle.

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

McConnell leaned heavily on his role in passing the CARES Act as defense, also bringing up a half-trillion dollar bill he put up on the floor a month ago and “couldn’t get a single Democrat to vote for.”

McGrath suggested the HEROES Act, the supplementary stimulus bill currently proposed in Congress, which McConnell rejected for its clauses that give tax cuts to wealthy people in New York and California and “health care insurance for illegal immigrants.”

Throughout the night, McGrath would continue to hammer on the lack of a second COVID-19 bill, saying McConnell was making excuses for not getting the job done and saying several times that the Senate took a vacation when it should have been pursuing negotiations. McConnell said the proximity to the election was slowing the process.

“I think they don’t want a solution prior to the election,” McConnell said of Democrats. “The speaker of the house is clearly not interested in getting an outcome and that’s why the talks have gone on for a while,” he elaborated. In response to another question, McGrath said an aid bill should provide unemployment insurance, another round of PPE for small businesses and a national testing and tracing plan, but that the real problem is there is “no leadership at all” at the federal level.

Two days after the debate McConnell announced that the Senate would vote on a $500 billion relief bill this week. An earlier vote had been attempted but was blocked by Democrats, who thought the bill did not go far enough to meet America’s needs. 

Partisan divide looms large

Rebuttals throughout the debate picked up a theme seen in the relief bill issue, which was consistent mentions of (a lack) of partisan cooperation.

McConnell also repeatedly lumped McGrath in with other groups, saying she was the most progressive person in Kentucky and would support court packing and making Puerto Rico and D.C. states. McGrath coutnered by saying that McConnell was lying about her views; when questioned by Bryant on court packing, she said that her real focus was unpacking the Senate, which McConnell has spent the last 30 years weaponizing to where it can’t function.

“He has built a senate that is so dysfunctional and so partisan that even in the middle of a national crisis, we can’t get it done,” McGrath said. “Think about that. For that reason alone, he should be voted out of office.”

She continued to throw barbs on the subject during other questions, saying that in other cases of Supreme Court nominations there was actually order because McConnell wasn’t Senate majority leader, and commending Gov. Andy Beshear and Kentucky Secretary of State Michael Adams on their bipartisan voting plan.

“They actually came together and negotiated. Isn’t that amazing? Wish we could do that on a federal level,” McGrath said. For his part, McConnell repeatedly blamed Democrats for not cooperating and, in a question about Supreme Court nominations, said talking about partisan problems distracted from the issue at hand.

“We can spend the whole debate on this if we want to, but she wants to blame the Republican senate,” McConnell said of McGrath’s continued focus on the topic. Several times, including in his closing remarks, McConnell said McGrath was just like national Democrats like Chuck Schumer and said she would enable the left-wing agenda.


National vs. state concerns

Alongside the partisan divide, McConnell also framed the Senate race as a case of ensuring Kentucky’s status nationally. As Senate Majority leader, he runs the Senate and decides what bills can be voted on and serves as the spokesperson for the Republican party, giving him a stronger bargaining position for Kentucky, an advantage McConnell said would be gone if McGrath was elected instead of him.

“If she goes to Washington, the first vote she’ll cast in the senate is to make Chuck Schumer from New York the majority leader, transferring the influence and power that Kentucky has now – because I’m one of the four leaders not from New York or California – to New York, further degrading Kentucky’s influence in Washington,” McConnell said.

McGrath countered by saying his influence wasn’t much good if Kentuckians were still being hit by mounting co-pays, prescription drug hikes, high cancer rates and rural inequalities. McConnell argued that his role as majority leader contributed to aid for those problems, including $275 million for the fight against opioids (some of which went to UK, in a record $87 million grant).

“I allow Kentucky to punch above its weight,” McConnell said. “What does it meant to Kentucky over my last term? $17.5 billion for the Commonwealth that would not have been there had I been majority leader of the Senate.”

Area of agreement

In response to a question about the Breonna Taylor case, both McConnell and McGrath said they did not support defunding the police. Both said the shooting was a tragedy ; “a botched job” according to McConnell, who said, that sometimes the law does not offer justice. He said law enforcement officials are doing the best they can; McConnell and McGrath both went on the record saying they did not support rioting or looting. McGrath took the topic a step further with suggestions for police reforms, including nation-wide body cameras and banning no-knock warrants at the federal level, as well as a national database for police officers.

“If you get dismissed from one police department you don’t get to go into another one without people knowing your record,” McGrath said of the database. She also called out McConnell for having both the George Floyd Justice and Policing Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act sitting Other issues from the night included ideas for the recovering coal industry and, relevant to students, confronting the rising cost of higher education and increasing student debt (McConnell pointed to money he has gotten Kentucky universities, whereas McGrath said her first priority would be to hold Betsy DeVos accountable).

In their closing remarks, McConnell again framed the election as a vote for Kentucky’s influence or the Democratic agenda, and McGrath asked Kentuckians if 36 years of Mitch McConnell had left them better off.