Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s opponent accused him of failing the country with the lack of another coronavirus relief package, while the Republican incumbent described himself as a powerful advocate for Kentucky in a hard-hitting televised debate Monday evening.
In their first, and potentially only debate of the campaign, McConnell and Democratic challenger Amy McGrath sparred over the federal response to the COVID-19 crisis, the Supreme Court nomination fight and the Republican incumbent’s decadeslong record.
McGrath, a retired Marine combat pilot, was aggressive in blaming the senator for Congress’ inability to secure another round of federal relief for a pandemic-battered economy, calling it a “dereliction of duty.” McConnell blamed congressional Democrats for the stalemated negotiations.
McConnell touted his top Senate leadership post and his ability to deliver federal money as valuable assets for Kentucky that would be lost if he leaves the Senate. McGrath said the Republican incumbent has failed to tackle the state’s chronic economic and health problems.
The exchange turned personal as McConnell responded to the barrage from McGrath and her repeated references crediting her Marine career for training her to be a problem solver.
“I think her entire campaign is: she’s a Marine, she’s a mom and I’ve been there (the Senate) too long,” McConnell said.
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.
Related: Mitch McConnell through the years
“I allow Kentucky to punch above its weight,” McConnell said. “What does it mean to Kentucky over the last term? My last term $17.5 billion for the commonwealth that would not have been there had I not been the majority leader of 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. In-person early voting begins Tuesday, and many Kentuckians are 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.
Trying to put the blame back on McConnell, McGrath said: “If you want to call yourself a leader, you got to get things done. Those of us who served in the Marines, we don’t just point fingers at the other side, we get the job done.”
McConnell noted that he shepherded an economic rescue package totaling more than $2 trillion through the Senate early in the fight against the pandemic. McGrath responded: “That legislation was passed back in March, and here we are this coronavirus is still happening.”
The Kentucky rivals also 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 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.