MADISONVILLE, Ky. -- For 30 years, no one has been able to beat Kentucky Senator and Republican minority leader Mitch McConnell -- but one 35-year-old woman just might pull it off. Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes is tied in recent polls, and getting reinforcements from the likes of Hillary Clinton and Senator Elizabeth Warren. An energetic and fierce stump speaker, Grimes' strategy seems to be to say as little as possible and focus on her much-disliked opponent. MSNBC caught up with the candidate just after a rally for the United Mine Workers of America, the union that has endorsed her after sitting out the 2012 presidential race. She talked about her stances on the Affordable Care Act and criminal justice reform, the female senators who inspire her -- and, relentlessly, her target, McConnell. Below is a lightly edited transcript of the conversation Tuesday morning.
If you're elected, which senator will you look to for inspiration?
I think the women of the Senate, regardless of the party that you're looking at, they have been the ones to make sure that we are reaching across the aisle and putting the people of this nation first. I'm excited to go be a part of that amazing group of women, whether it's Susan Collins or Debbie Stabenow, what we've seen, the women are leading the way. When it came to a farm bill, Debbie Stabenow. Appropriations and budget, you have Barbara Mikulski and Patty Murray. These are the women that are getting things done and I look forward to being right there to make sure that we are keeping the people of Kentucky at the forefront, cutting through the partisanship. That's what the women have done. And I'm going to be doing that in the spirit of [former Kentucky Democratic Senator] Wendell Ford.
It's been said of your campaign that it's too cautious, it is too negative, and too focused on Mitch McConnell. Is that fair, and what is a positive case for your candidacy?
"I will not rip insurance from people's hands who just got it for the first time."'
I think it is the Washington beltway punditry, who hasn't realized that this race is Kentucky through and through. This is a race about Kentucky versus all that's wrong with Washington. We have stayed focused on the 30 years of failed leadership that Mitch McConnell has given to Kentucky. It's on his watch that we have seen thousands of coal jobs decline. It's on his watch that women in our state are making 76 cents on every dollar. It's on his watch that we've seen our students struggle under the burden of crushing student loan debt, carrying $20,000 This campaign has been one that has been focused on holding Mitch McConnell accountable for all that's happened on his watch while also putting forth the plan we have to put Kentuckyians back to work, grow the middle class.
That's the campaign that I've run. It's been Kentucky through and through. It's been my privilege to be on the ballot fighting for them. That's who I'm fighting for.
A few weeks ago, at the debate, Mitch McConnell said he would keep the website of Kynect, Kentucky's version of the Affordable Care Act. The implementation of the Affordable Care Act is considered a success. Do you think that the Affordable Care Act is working in Kentucky?
I think that a half million Kentuckyans lives are improved, especially because of the courage of our governor to expand Medicaid and create our own state based exchange. Mitch McConnell just showed a total lack of connection with reality at that debate, how out of touch he is ... I will not rip insurance from people's hands who just got it for the first time. I will go to Washington and help fix something that is helping half a million Kentuckians.
We've talked for the past year and a half about making sure that we are streamlining the process, especially for small businesses. As the chief business officer here in the state, I've worked with over 700,000 businesses. I know the nearly 900 federal regulations that impact our businesses. We want them to be incentivized to provide coverage, not drop hours or worse employees. We want to make sure that if they like their plan and their doctor, they get to keep it. That's the extension of the grandfathering clause. Obviously here in Kentucky we had a rollout that led the nation. That's due to the success of our governor and his hard work. But we have to investigate the botched federal rollout so that doesn't happen again.
I noticed you haven't been talking about the Affordable Care Act that much on the stump.
Well, if you heard me up there today, it was talking about Mitch McConnell wanting to repeal root and branch something that is helping our miners actually collect their black lung benefits. That's what Mitch McConnell does best, talk out of both sides of his mouth. He wants to say he's for the coal miners here in the state. But what he doesn't tell them is that he wants to repeal something that right now is helping them get the benefits they're due and deserve. I speak from my heart. And the people of this state, especially our miners, they're our heroes.
Kentucky has a felon disenfranchisement rate that is almost three times the national average. This is something Senator Rand Paul has done a lot of work on. What's your opinion on that?
As secretary of state, I've said from the beginning that we need to be breaking down the barriers to the ballot box. Once you have paid your debt to society, you should be allowed to participate back in our democracy, especially for non-violent felony offenders. That's something I've worked closely on. Unfortunately as it's come out of the [state] House, it hasn't made it over to the Republican controlled Senate. but I look forward to working closely with Senator Rand Paul to make sure that we are helping to remove all the barriers to the ballot box. I know he's doing work right now with Cory Booker to address our criminal justice system. I do believe that those are necessary reforms.
If you're elected, you would not only be Kentucky's first female Senator, but you would also be the youngest Senator by five years. Is youth an asset for you? Or is it difficult to overcome, to have people not taking you seriously?
Well, I think my record speaks for itself. In the time that I've been honored to serve as Kentucky's secretary of state, it's been putting the people of Kentucky first. We've passed historic pieces of legislation because unlike Mitch McConnell, who in thirty years hasn't learned how to get along with anyone, it's something I learned, I guess, as the third of five girls. You have to be able to bring people together. And that's the experience that Kentucky needs in Washington. That's what we are missing. The era of earmarks is over. And what Mitch McConnell isn't telling people is that the gridlock he champions, that's why the president is wrongly ruling by executive order ...
Which of the president's executive orders do you disagree with?
I don't think the president should be ruling, especially when it comes to immigration reform, by executive order. Congress should be doing its job. I'm for making sure that we get comprehensive immigration reform passed. It will help especially our farmers here in Kentucky, 4% of our workforce, improve. But we have to have someone there who actually wants to tackle the process, not someone who stood in the way of the bipartisan measure that came out of the Senate and said he is only in favor of a piecemeal approach. Kentuckyians deserve better. Thirty years is long enough.