Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Democratic candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes ripped into each other Monday night in the Kentucky Senate race's first and likely only debate of the fall.
With polls tight in this race just three weeks ahead of Election Day—the latest Bluegrass Poll put Grimes up 2 percentage points, while Fox News's most recent poll found McConnell up 4 points—this debate was a key moment in what's been one of the most high-profile and expensive races on the map this year.
Here are National Journal's key takeaways:
Grimes doubled down on her non-answer over her 2012 vote.
The Democratic secretary of state has come under immense fire in recent days for refusing to answer multiple questions about who she voted for in the 2012 presidential election.
She repeated that non-answer Monday night. Asked by moderator Bill Goodman why she was "reluctant" to state who she voted for that year, Grimes replied: "There's no reluctance. This is a matter of principle."
Grimes went on to say her decision is part of defending the "constitutional right for privacy at the ballot box."
"If I, as the chief election official, don't stand up for that right, who will?" she continued.
Given how much heat she's taken for this already—and the fact that it's made its way into McConnell's TV advertising—that sound bite will undoubtedly be further fodder for GOP ads in the final stretch.
The whole debate was pretty nasty.
McConnell and Grimes took every opportunity they could to snipe at each other, reflecting the general tone and tenor of the race thus far (and making for a highly entertaining hour of TV). The two would occasionally spoke over each other and the moderator, asking for a chance to respond to a particularly negative comment from the other candidate.
Grimes spoke directly to McConnell, addressing him as "Senator McConnell" throughout; McConnell largely directed his criticism of Grimes through Goodman, calling her "my opponent."
The two repeatedly made reference to their respective opponent's false or inaccurate statements on various issues.
Grimes called McConnell "Senator Gridlock" and "Senator No-Show," saying he's responsible for "extreme partisanship" in Washington and that he's living in a "fictional fantasyland" when it comes to how Obamacare is working in the state.
McConnell began the debate by saying Grimes "has spent most of her time trying to deceive everybody about her own views" and that she "has been an active partisan Democrat all along." He claimed several of her statements have received "four Pinocchios"—a reference to The Washington Post Fact Checker.
After one answer Grimes gave, McConnell began his response by shaking his head slightly and saying, "Of course, none of that is factually accurate."
McConnell stumbled over his answers on Obamacare and the state's Medicaid expansion.
McConnell generally seemed comfortable talking about policy issues throughout—but the one area where he stumbled a bit was over a series of questions about Obamacare and its impact in Kentucky.
Goodman pressed McConnell for almost five minutes on his views about the Affordable Care Act and its implications for Kentucky, where Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear accepted the federal Medicaid expansion.
McConnell repeated a frequent campaign line, saying Obamacare should be "pull[ed] out root and branch" and that the law has, in particular, hit seniors hard. He criticized the medical-device tax and the health insurance premium tax.
As for the survival of the state-based health care site Kynect, McConnell said "it's a state decision" and looked to leave it at that. But pressed further, he continued: "Well, that's fine. I think it's fine to have a website."
The exchange highlighted the difficulty for GOP candidates in discussing Obamacare this year, particularly in states that accepted the Medicaid expansion like Kentucky: It's tough to denounce the federal law without acknowledging the positive effects the Medicaid expansion can have within specific states.
(Expect to see that answer pop up in attack ads as well.)
Grimes didn't have a game-changing moment, but got stronger toward the end of the debate.
Given the bad headlines Grimes has received lately, both over the 2012 vote issue and her campaign overall, the Democrat needed a game-changing moment Monday night to help inject some momentum into her campaign for the remaining three weeks.
She didn't have one of those moments—and, in fact, her repeated non-answer on her 2012 vote will likely draw most of the headlines. But as the debate went on, Grimes got stronger—and her answers on issues like coal and student-loan debt were on-point.
After McConnell said toward the end of the debate that the state's next senator needs to focus on coal jobs, tying Grimes to President Obama, Grimes fired back: "Senator McConnell fails to see he has a role in all of the jobs that have been lost here in the state," she said. "They happened on your watch, Senator "¦ you don't want to take any responsibility. It's wrong."
McConnell gave several nods to his potential ascension as Senate majority leader.
This race has implications that echo far beyond Kentucky—namely, whether McConnell will become Senate majority leader should Republicans retake control of the Senate next month.
McConnell made several references to his potential position as majority leader, at one point outright noting that he could take the Senate's top spot next year.
"There's a great likelihood that I will be the leader of the majority in the Senate next year," he said at one point. "So one of the basic questions here is who can do the most for Kentucky over the next six years?"
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