, Corbin, KY


May 30, 2014

Senate candidate debate plans debated


FRANKFORT — Both candidates for the U.S. Senate — Republican incumbent Mitch McConnell and Democratic challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes — say they are eager to debate the issues.

They certainly don’t lack for offers from those wishing to host debates — according to the Grimes campaign nearly every television station in Kentucky has offered to host debates. At least one newspaper, the Beattyville Enterprise in Lee County, has also offered to host the two candidates.

That’s the paper which printed a story quoting McConnell as saying bringing jobs to eastern Kentucky isn’t the responsibility of a U.S. Senator and not coincidentally the first place Grimes went after winning the Democratic primary last week.

On Wednesday, both the Kentucky Education Television network and the League of Women Voters also sent letters to both campaigns offering to host debates. Both traditionally host debates or in KET’s case, a forum moderated by Kentucky Tonight host Bill Goodman, during major elections.

McConnell proposed three “Lincoln-Douglas style” debates with no reporters, no live audience, no notes, and only a time-keeping moderator. He wants all three to occur by Labor Day and WDRB-TV in Louisville has offered to host one of those on June 21, an offer McConnell quickly accepted.

So any voters who haven’t made up their minds about the race will have ample opportunity to compare the 72-year-old, five-term incumbent Republican with the 35-year-old, first-term state Secretary of State side by side, right?

Well, maybe.

Grimes campaign advisor Jonathan Hurst says Grimes welcomes “the opportunity to debate McConnell and our campaign stands ready to discuss the details.” He said the campaign plans to respond to McConnell’s offer by letter and the two sides may try to sit down next week to discuss debates.

Meanwhile, McConnell seems to have indicated in a radio interview with Terry Meiners on WHAS Radio in Louisville last week that he isn’t interested in any format or schedule other than the one he proposed — although he didn’t unequivocally rule out negotiations.

But the Grimes camp isn’t likely to accept such a “take-or-leave-it” offer.

Hurst said last week that McConnell’s wish to conduct all the debates by Labor Day isn’t the best time to capture voters’ attention. Conventional wisdom in the political world is that voters don’t focus on an election until after Labor Day at the earliest — though with the significance of the McConnell-Grimes contest and the national attention it is generating, that may not hold altogether true in 2014.

McConnell didn’t waste any time accepting the WDRB offer. But the Grimes camp may be reluctant to do the same since many Democrats think WDRB president Bill Lamb sometimes takes editorial positions they think are pro-Republican or sympathetic to McConnell.

McConnell, however, has told reporters he plans to be at WDRB on June 21 and hopes Grimes will show up as well.

Grimes’ campaign has also indicated it wants to discuss with the McConnell camp specific dates and hosts, an indication it won’t blindly accept the original McConnell offer.

Allison Moore, spokeswoman for McConnell’s campaign, said campaign manager Jesse Benton is willing to discuss the debates with Grimes advisor Jonathan Hurst but the two have so far been unable to speak directly. Apparently each has left the other a voicemail.

“Senator McConnell sent Secretary Grimes a debate invitation over a week ago and we’ve been hearing that they’re going to send us a letter in response every day since,” Moore said. “Our campaign manager attempted to call Jonathan Hurst earlier this week but was hung-up on after he introduced himself, so hopefully this voicemail is a sign of progress. If they ever get this letter drafted we hope it says, ‘great, see you on June 21.”

Hurst has denied hanging up on Benton.

McConnell’s quick offer of debates – the day after the primary – is somewhat unusual for incumbents and for McConnell. Typically, incumbents aren’t as eager to debate challengers on the assumption they grant their opponent equal status in voters’ eyes by appearing together on stage.

McConnell also hasn’t always been the first to offer or request debates. In 2008, he declined to debate Democratic challenger Bruce Lunsford on KET but accepted two debates, one in western Kentucky and another in northern Kentucky.

RONNIE ELLIS writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at Follow CNHI News Service stories on Twitter at

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