LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — In a debate at close quarters, Democratic challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes vowed Monday night to be independent of President Barack Obama if she wins Kentucky's close and costly Senate race, but Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said his rival hopes to deceive voters about her intentions.
Despite her pledge, Grimes stuck to her days-long refusal to say if she voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012. She insisted that if she answered the question, it would "compromise a constitutional right" to cast a secret ballot.
McConnell quickly scoffed at that. "There's no sacred right to not announce how you voted," he said, seated next to Grimes for an hour-long debate hosted by KET, the state's public television station. "I voted for Mitt Romney proudly. I voted for John McCain," he added, referring to the two men Obama defeated.
The race is one of several that will determine if Republicans capture a Senate majority in midterm elections. They need to pick up six seats to prevail, and a GOP triumph would all-but-certainly make McConnell the new majority leader, with the power to set the Senate's legislative agenda during the last two years of Obama's presidency.
The contest is also one of the most expensive in the country, with millions of dollars in television commercials aired by the candidates, their parties and allies focused on Senate races nationally. McConnell also has benefited from about $20 million in advertisements from a pair of organizations set up by former aides and associates solely to re-elect him to a sixth term.
McConnell and Grimes disagreed sharply about the minimum wage, coal, trade and the health care law. McConnell, who has led the charge in the Senate to repeal the law known as Obamacare, said it's all right with him if Kentucky wants to continue an expansion of care for low-income residents set up as part of the program.
Side by side with McConnell for the only time in their race, Grimes offered several possible labels for the 30-year Senate veteran — "Senator no-show, Senator gridlock and Senator shutdown."
McConnell countered that as Senate Republican leader, he has been involved in the major bipartisan deals that have been reached in the past four years of divided government.
He also said that despite her attempts to establish political independence from the president, Grimes was a delegate to Democratic National Conventions in 2008 and 2012, when some Democratic office-holders stayed away. "She's made a major effort to deceive the people of Kentucky," he said.
But Grimes said she has disagreements with Obama, adding, "the president is not on the ballot this year. It's myself and Sen. McConnell."
Grimes said repeatedly the minimum wage should be raised, and said if it were, at least a million Americans would be better off. McConnell countered that a study by the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office said it would cause the loss of between 500,000 and one million jobs.
McConnell also sharply rebuked Grimes when she said he has become wealthy while in the Senate "on the backs of hard-working Kentuckians." The five-term senator said an independent fact-checker had debunked her claim, and said the bulk of his increase in wealth over three decades came from an inheritance by his wife, former Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, and from her employment.
The president is highly unpopular in Kentucky, and Grimes has spent months and millions in advertising money trying to establish her political independence from him.
McConnell, whose own poll ratings are poor after 30 years in office, has worked nonstop to cast his rival as a certain ally of the administration.
Both candidates unveiled new television ads in the hours before the debate.
Grimes' commercial featured retired Democratic Sen. Wendell Ford, who said McConnell "is Mr. No," and said that unlike the incumbent, the challenger won't vote to send jobs overseas.
McConnell's ad showed Chuck Todd, an NBC newsman who moderates Meet The Press, saying earlier in the week, "I think she (Grimes) disqualified herself" by not saying who she voted for.
Grimes, 35, was recruited by the Democratic party nationally to run, and got off to a fast start while McConnell, 72, was bogged down in a costly primary race with tea party rival Matt Bevin.
Grimes and McConnell both won their primaries with ease in mid-May, at a time the Democratic challenger was ahead in most if not all of the public polls. She soon came under a withering barrage of televised attacks, though. In recent weeks, her favorability has eroded in public surveys, many of which show McConnell with a slender advantage in a very tight race.
The debate's sponsors did not allow still photographers or reporters into the studio during the event, preventing them from capturing the full context of how the candidates performed outside the view of KET's cameras.