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McConnell and Grimes talk Obamacare, climate, coal in only debate

In their only debate, Alison Lundergran Grimes and Mitch McConnell sparred over Obamacare, minimum wage laws and above all coal, coal and more coal.

In their only meeting of the election, Democratic Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes and Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell sparred over Obamacare, minimum wage laws, and above all coal, coal, and more coal.

An energetic Grimes attacked McConnell from the start as a symbol of all that ails Washington, including the lack of bipartisan cooperation on major issues in Congress and the 2013 government shutdown, and described the race as "senator of the past versus senator of the future.”

“I’m an independent thinker that does what’s right for the people of Kentucky, not partisan politics,” she said. “I’m not bought and paid for by the Koch brothers or any special interest.” 

McConnell in turn blamed high unemployment in Kentucky and a lack of major legislation in Congress on President Barack Obama and accused Grimes of hiding her level of agreement with the White House. 

“My opponent has spent most of her time trying to deceive everyone about her own views: She’s been an active partisan Democrat all along,” he said. 

He challenged Grimes over her claim that she was a “Clinton Democrat” rather than an Obama supporter, saying “there’s not a dimes worth of difference between a Clinton Democrat and an Obama Democrat.”

The moderator managed to put each candidate on the defensive at times. Grimes refused for the second time in a week to answer whether she had voted for Obama in 2012, saying her decision not to reveal her choice was a “matter of principle.”

“Every Kentuckian has the right for privacy at the ballot box,” she said. “If I as chief election official don’t stand up for that right, who in Kentucky will?” 

Photo essay: Life under austerity in Kentucky

Turning to health care, McConnell struggled to explain how he squared his promise to repeal Obamacare with his claim that Kentucky could also keep its popular state health care exchange, which runs on subsidies provided by the law, and the state’s Medicaid expansion, which was financed by federal dollars under the health care law as well. 

“It’s a state exchange, they can continue it if they’d like to,” McConnell said. “They’ll have to pay for it because the grant will be over.”

Pressed as to whether he personally supported maintaining the exchange if Obamacare were repealed, he responded that “it’s fine to have a website, yeah.”

Led by Democratic Governor Steve Beshear, Kentucky had one of the most successful rollouts of the health care law and Grimes accused McConnell of wanting to take insurance away from the estimated 500,000 Kentuckians who gained coverage under the law.

“I will not be a senator that rips their insurance from their hand,” she said, pledging instead to “work to fix” the law.

Both McConnell and Grimes pledged to oppose regulations that hurt coal jobs, a traditional state industry that’s dwindled to around 12,000 jobs in the state but still exerts a strong emotional pull. McConnell blamed environmental regulations under the Obama administration for hurting the industry. Grimes said McConnell had failed to stem the loss of jobs over several administrations. 

“Over and over again, Senator McConnell fails to see he has a role in all of the jobs that have been in this his state,” she said. “They’ve been on your watch.” 

McConnell was asked at one point whether he believed, as he had stated in an editorial meeting this month, that because he was “not a scientist” he didn’t have to address the scientific consensus that carbon emissions are threatening the planet with rapid climate change.

“There’s a bunch of scientists who feel this is a problem and that maybe we can do something about CO2 emissions,” he said. “George Will, the columnist, wrote recently that back in '70s a lot of scientists thought we were moving towards an ice age.” 

Instead, McConnell said “the job of the U.S. Senator from Kentucky is to fight for coal jobs in our state.”

McConnell, who is likely to rise to Senate majority leader if Republicans gain control of the body, has held a small lead in most recent surveys of the race, but Grimes led a SurveyUSA poll by 2 recently and has managed to stay in the game as it heads into the final stretch.