WASHINGTON (AP) — Senate hopefuls reached for advantage Monday in debates in Kentucky, Virginia and Arkansas three weeks before the midterm House and Senate elections.
The races are part of an election landscape from which Republicans are seeking a six-seat gain and the Senate majority, a result that would put both houses of Congress under Republican control in the final two years of President Barack Obama's term in office.
A look at the Kentucky, Arkansas and Virginia debates.
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Democratic challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes held their only debate of the campaign, and disagreed about health care, the minimum wage, coal and more.
Mostly, they quarreled over Grimes' claim that she would be independent of President Barack Obama if she wins the seat McConnell has held for five terms. The president is highly unpopular in the state and McConnell, whose own approval ratings are poor, has tried to turn the election into a referendum on the chief executive rather than on his own tenure.
"I have my disagreements with the president," Grimes said, particularly on energy policy. "The president is not on the ballot this year."
McConnell said that with her claims, Grimes is trying to deceive voters of the state, and noted she attended the Democratic National Conventions that nominated Obama in 2008 and 2012, even though some Democratic officeholders did not.
Grimes also wouldn't answer a question that has become a central focus in the race — whether she voted for Obama when he ran. She said to do so would violate a constitutional privilege.
McConnell replied there is no sacred right to refrain from voluntarily disclosing your choice for office. "I voted for Mitt Romney proudly. I voted for John McCain," he added, referring to the two men Obama defeated.
Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor and Republican Rep. Tom Cotton accused one another of not representing the state's interests — with Pryor saying Cotton was beholden to billionaire backers and Cotton describing his rival as a "rubber stamp" for President Barack Obama.
Pryor, a two-term senator, accused Cotton of putting his ambition ahead of the state and voting more for conservative outside groups that have backed his bid.
"They are investing in Tom Cotton just like they would invest in a company. Why? They want to get a payback on their investment, and they will," Pryor said. "If he's elected to the Senate, they will get six years of paybacks."
Cotton, a freshman lawmaker representing south Arkansas, invoked the president throughout the 90-minute debate and cited the president's recent remarks that his policies were on the ballot even if he wasn't in this midterm election. The president lost Arkansas in the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections and remains deeply unpopular in the state.
"Barack Obama has said his policies are on the ballot, every single one of them. I agree," Cotton said. "In Arkansas, those policies are called Mark Pryor."
Democratic Sen. Mark Warner and Republican challenger Ed Gillespie hammered each other over taxes Monday during their final scheduled debate.
The AARP Virginia and The League of Women Voters of Virginia hosted the event at a television studio in Richmond and it was broadcast statewide. The debate featured some of the feistiest exchanges between Warner and Gillespie in the three they've held so far.
Warner accused Gillespie of signing anti-tax advocate Grover Norquist's pledge to not raise taxes, saying the move signaled Gillespie's partisan rigidity on budget matters.
"He took the pledge," Warner said. "That means you're not even willing to close a single tax loophole, and that puts us back in sequestration, that puts us back cutting senior services, that puts us back cutting the military, cutting education."
Gillespie did not actually sign the "Taxpayer Protection Pledge" of Norquist's group, Americans for Tax Reform. But Gillespie did send Norquist a letter with nearly identical wording from the pledge, and Norquist said in a letter that Gillespie's position went "above and beyond" the letter of the pledge. Warner's campaign handed out copies of both letters to reporters during the debate.
Gillespie said he doesn't sign pledges but his position on taxes is clear.
"Mark Warner wants to raise taxes more," Gillespie said. "I will fight tax increases and that's the debate we ought to have, and I'm happy to have that debate."
Associated Press writers David Espo in Lexington, Kentucky; Alan Suderman in Richmond, Virginia; and Andrew DeMillo in Conway, Arkansas, contributed to this report.