Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Democratic challenger Amy McGrath fired off answers about COVID-19, the Supreme Court, police reform and other issues Monday night during a fast-paced, hour-long debate — the first and likely last one they’ll both do before the Nov. 3 election. 

Both candidates kept hammering on the major points they each wanted to get across to Kentucky voters as they fielded an array of questions from WKYT news anchor Bill Bryant.

McConnell’s main message: He has used his clout to bring significant funds —  $17.5 billion, he said, during his most recent term — to Kentucky and gives the state an influential voice in Congress.

“Look, the question is: Who can be effective for Kentucky?” he said. “I give Kentucky an opportunity to punch above its weight on national issues and to bring home things for this state that it would not otherwise get.”

Meanwhile, McGrath repeatedly stressed what is perhaps the biggest theme of her campaign: McConnell — who was first elected a senator in 1984 — has been in office too long and has not used his clout in the ways he should have to help Kentucky. 

“Sen. McConnell likes to talk about Kentucky punching above its weight. Here in Kentucky, we know we feel like we’ve been sucker punched,” she said during the debate, citing the state’s high rates of health problems like cancer and Kentuckians’ relatively low wages as examples. 

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“Are you better off than you were six years ago?” she asked the people watching the widely broadcast face-off between her and McConnell. “Are you better off than you were 36 years ago?”

McConnell and McGrath threaded those talking points throughout Monday’s debate, but they also spoke more specifically about particular challenges the country is dealing with right now. 

Bryant opened the debate by asking what each candidate believes the federal government should be doing to mitigate the threat of COVID-19.

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McGrath criticized McConnell for failing to strike a deal with congressional Democrats for a new coronavirus relief package, which she said is needed in Kentucky, and accused him of “playing these very partisan, political games” in the midst of this crisis. (The commonwealth has seen more than 1 million people file for unemployment during the pandemic.)

“That’s not what you’re going to get from me,” McGrath said. “I have a plan to get us through this coronavirus so that our schools are opened up safely, so that we get our economy back and stop playing these games.”

But McConnell blamed Democrats, especially House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, for the lack of a compromise. 

“We’ve been in negotiation with the Speaker. She’s been demanding we throw $3 trillion at this problem in a way that is largely, in many respects, unrelated to solving the problem,” he said. “I think they don’t want a solution prior to the election.”

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He also emphasized his involvement in developing the $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, commonly known as the CARES Act, which passed Congress in March.

Kentucky has received $13 billion from the CARES Act, but Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear has said Kentucky was counting on more aid from a new coronavirus relief package. (McConnell indicated last week it’s unlikely Congress will approve any kind of COVID-19 relief legislation before the election.)

When asked how he’d rate Beshear and President Donald Trump’s respective (and quite different) ways of handling the pandemic, McConnell responded: “Well, I think they’ve both done the best they can with an unknown disease that we were all trying to figure out how to handle.”

McGrath, on the other hand, gave the federal government a failing grade.

“Well, I give the president, the White House and this Congress an F for its handling of coronavirus. Look, we have 213,000 Americans dead in nine months,” she said. “That’s more Americans dead than World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Persian Gulf War, Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined. And Sen. McConnell thinks we’ve done a good job?”

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Moving the conversation from COVID-19, Bryant read a question submitted by a University of Kentucky student asking if confirmation hearings for Trump’s nominee to succeed the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg should be happening less than a month before an election.

“No” is the short answer, McGrath said.

“Nobody should be voting on a Supreme Court nominee right now,” McGrath said, and suggested Congress should focus instead on passing another coronavirus relief package.

McConnell hit his campaign’s oft-cited point that McGrath will go along with other Democrats in Washington, D.C., to “pack” the Supreme Court by expanding the number of justices on it. (McGrath previously has said she’s open to considering adding seats to the court.)

He also praised Trump’s nominee, Judge Amy Coney Barrett, as “an absolute legal all-star.”

Concerning speculation Roe v. Wade, the ruling that legalized abortion in the U.S., could be overturned by a Supreme Court that includes Barrett, McConnell said he opposes abortion but stressed that there’s no way to know how justices would rule on specific issues.

“No one knows what may happen with any nominee,” he said. “Every Republican nominee has been projected to be a disaster for women and none of them have turned out that way.”

McGrath offered this perspective: “Well, I’m Catholic and I’m the mother of three small children, and this issue has been an important issue to me my whole life. I’m somebody that believes that the government should not be legislating my religion or my religious belief on others, and I do believe we already have reasonable restrictions on abortion in this country as per outlined in Roe v. Wade.”

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Breonna Taylor, the 26-year-old Black woman police shot and killed in her Louisville apartment in March and whose death has garnered national attention, also came up Monday.

In the wake of a grand jury’s recent decision to indict only one officer involved in the shooting on charges that weren’t specifically related to Taylor’s death, Bryant asked this question that a UK student sent: “Do you think justice was done?”

Neither candidate directly answered that question.

McConnell began his response by saying while he has “great tolerance” for peaceful demonstrations, he does not have “much tolerance for violence and looting.”

He said Taylor’s death was “an incredible tragedy, a botched job, a terrible outcome… but I think in terms of justice in America, we have to follow the laws that were written.”

McConnell stressed he supports law enforcement officers. “Some of them are bad, but it’s not appropriate to defund the police or demonize police officers in general,” he said.

McGrath responded by saying she does not support “looting or rioting or destruction of property or violence in any way,” and she does not want to defund the police.

She said Taylor’s death was “an absolute tragedy” and said leaders “have to take a step back and recognize that we need change in this country.”

McConnell noted Senate Democrats blocked a GOP bill to institute police reforms and suggested it shows how Democrats in Congress have “been slow-walking everything that comes up.” (They said they felt that particular proposal was inadequate.)

McGrath had a rebuttal to that: “You’re hearing it all night long: More excuses… He’s the Senate majority leader, and he still can’t get it done.”

One of the last issues the candidates addressed during the debate was the opioid epidemic that has shattered many Kentucky families.

Bryant asked how the commonwealth can “turn the tide” on that front, and McConnell pointed to money he helped bring to the state to battle addiction and overdoses, including an $87 million grant for the University of Kentucky to help address and study this crisis.

“We’re still fighting the battle. It’s not over yet, but my clout has made a huge difference in providing funds for Kentucky on this big problem,” the longtime senator said. 

McGrath accused McConnell of not holding Big Pharma accountable.

“Sen. McConnell’s clout has allowed billions of prescription medication pills to flood into Kentucky,” she said.

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McGrath also said she wants to fix the Affordable Care Act and make health care easier to obtain so people struggling with addiction can get treatment and prevention.

As the debate wrapped up, the two candidates offered a final statement to Kentuckians.

“We have the leader of a Senate right now that is so dysfunctional and so partisan that even in the middle of a national crisis they can’t get things done for Kentucky,” she said. “You want more of that? I don’t. I want change.”

In his last comment of the night, McConnell said this isn’t complicated. 

“Do you want somebody from New York to be setting the agenda for America and not terribly interested in Kentucky or do you want to continue to have one of the four congressional leaders from our state looking out for Kentucky, giving Kentucky an opportunity to punch above its weight, providing extra assistance for Kentucky?” he said. “That’s the question. She will transfer all of that to New York. I will keep it in Kentucky.”

Reach reporter Morgan Watkins: 502-582-4502; mwatkins@courierjournal.com; Twitter: @morganwatkins26. Reach Emma Austin at eaustin@gannett.com or on Twitter at @emmacaustin.

This article originally appeared on Louisville Courier Journal: McConnell, McGrath: Kentucky Senate debate touches on police, COVID-19



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