03:53 - Source: CNN
High-stakes debate in Kentucky

Story highlights

Kentucky's Democratic Senate candidate won't say if she voted for President Obama

Alison Lundergan Grimes cited the "matter of principle" of privacy at the ballot box

GOP Sen. Mitch McConnell criticized her answer, said he voted for John McCain, Mitt Romney

Washington CNN  — 

Alison Lundergan Grimes again refused to reveal whether she voted for President Barack Obama, dodging the question for the second time in a week Monday during the only debate of Kentucky’s Senate race.

Grimes, the Democratic secretary of state who is challenging Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in one of the nation’s marquee races, cited the “matter of principle” of privacy at the ballot box, noting that she is the state’s chief election officer.

“I’m not going to compromise a constitutional right provided here in Kentucky in order to curry favor on one or (an)other side or members of the media,” she said during Monday night’s debate.

The answer echoed one she gave the Louisville Courier-Journal’s editorial board last week, which touched off days of criticism – with NBC “Meet the Press” moderator Chuck Todd saying that Grimes “disqualified herself,” and McConnell’s campaign immediately placing that comment in a new ad.

It came after McConnell had already blasted Grimes for trying to hide her political allegiances in a state where Obama is deeply unpopular.

“My opponent has spent spent most of her time trying to deceive everybody about her own views,” the five-term Republican said.

McConnell also criticized Grimes’ answer on whether she voted for Obama, saying there is “no sacred right to not announce how we vote.”

He offered that he had “proudly” voted for GOP nominees John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012, and said he voted for Trey Grayson during Kentucky’s 2010 primary against now-Sen. Rand Paul. McConnell also said he doesn’t buy Grimes’ claim that she is a “Clinton Democrat.”

“There’s not a dime’s worth of difference between a Clinton Democrat and an Obama Democrat,” he said.

The debate was the only chance Kentucky voters will have to see the two candidates grapple personally in what’s been one of the nation’s most expensive races, and one of about a dozen that are key to Republicans’ chances of seizing at least six more seats and taking control of the Senate.

The free-wheeling, hour-long event was almost entirely negative – with Grimes calling McConnell “Senator Gridlock, Senator No-show or Senator Shutdown,” painting him as an obstructionist and accusing him of doing the bidding of conservative political funding giants Charles and David Koch.

She referred to the Koch brothers as McConnell’s “family,” and later, his “henchmen.”

Much of the debate was focused on coal, with Grimes criticizing the Obama administration’s move to curb emissions from coal-fired power plants by 30% over the next 25 years and McConnell going even harder after the Environmental Protection Agency and saying Grimes would be a reliable Obama supporter on issues like energy.

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

The two also tangled over Grimes’ push to increase the minimum wage and equal pay legislation, and Grimes landed a shot against McConnell for putting “two wars on a nation’s credit card.”

Grimes benefited late in the debate from a series of questions on Obamacare that demonstrated the difficulties GOP candidates face in states that have already expanded access to coverage under the 2010 health care law. Kentucky’s Democratic governor, Steve Beshear, accepted the federal Medicaid expansion and set up a state-run insurance exchange called Kynect.

McConnell said he wants to repeal the health care law “root and branch” and that hospitals “are being rim-racked by these Medicare reimbursement reductions.” But he wouldn’t address the future of Kynect, saying that “it’s a state decision” and that “it’s fine to have a website.”

Grimes said McConnell is living in a “fictional fantasyland” on the issue and that more than 500,000 Kentucky residents now have health insurance because of the law.

“I will not be the senator that rips that insurance from their hands,” she said.

Several times Grimes said McConnell had already had 30 years to carry his policy ideas through. But McConnell shot back that he was the one who negotiated several bipartisan efforts to extend the debt ceiling and stave off government shutdowns with Vice President Joe Biden in recent years. And he argued that a possible future role would position him to advance Kentucky’s interests.

“There’s a great likelihood,” McConnell said, “that I will be the leader of the majority in the Senate next year.”