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Did she vote for Obama? Kentucky Senate candidate still won’t say

Kentucky Senate debate
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, right, and Democratic opponent Alison Lundergan Grimes, rehearse with host Bill Goodman before their debate Monday.
(Pablo Alcala / Herald-Leader)

Alison Lundergan Grimes wants Kentuckians’ vote this November. Just don’t ask her about her own.

The question of how the Democrat voted in the 2012 presidential race has vexed Lundergan Grimes since she awkwardly and repeatedly avoided answering it last week in a meeting with the editorial board of the Louisville Courier-Journal. Monday’s first and only debate with incumbent Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell offered her a chance to push the issue aside.

But when it came up, Lundergan Grimes only offered a new twist on the non-answer that has puzzled political observers.

“This is a matter of principle,” she said when asked why she was reluctant to share her 2012 choice. “Our constitution grants here in Kentucky the constitutional right for privacy at the ballot box, for a secret ballot. You have that right, Sen. McConnell has that right, every Kentuckian has that right.”

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“As secretary of state, the chief election official, I’m tasked with overseeing and making sure that we’re enforcing all of our election laws. And I’ve worked very closely, especially with the members of our military, to ensure the privacy at the ballot box,” she continued. “I’m not going to compromise a constitutional right provided here in Kentucky in order to curry favor on one or the other side, or for members of the media. I’ll protect that right.”

McConnell, whose campaign had already raised the issue in a new television ad, showed no such reservation during the debate, which was televised statewide.

“There’s also no sacred right to not announce how we vote,” he said. “I voted for Mitt Romney, proudly. I voted for John McCain. And by the way in 2012, 116 out of 120 Kentucky counties agreed with my judgment that we might be in better shape now had Mitt Romney been elected.”

By most accounts, Lundergan Grimes has exceeded expectations in her race against McConnell, the top Republican in the Senate and perhaps its next majority leader come January. A Courier-Journal poll last week actually put her 2 percentage points ahead, despite withering attacks from McConnell and GOP groups.

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Key to her strategy has been demonstrating distance from President Obama and the national party. It’s been an easier task for her as a challenger than for Democratic incumbents who have largely backed his agenda in Congress, and are now routinely attacked for “voting with Obama X percent of the time.” But now Lundergan Grimes is in the position of refusing to cop to what most voters would assume, given that she served as a delegate for Obama -- that she voted for him at all.

The latest non-answer stood out in what was otherwise a strong debate performance by the Democrat. Lundergan Grimes aggressively challenged McConnell for being more concerned with his own well-being than that of his constituents.

“You’ve been there 30 years and you don’t want to take any responsibility for the loss of jobs here in this state,” Lundergan Grimes said. “The only person in Washington that’s been benefiting is Sen. McConnell and the millionaires and billionaires that have bankrolled him.”

McConnell, as expected, blasted what he called an “administration-created depression” in Kentucky.

“Giving Barack Obama another vote in the Senate, continuing this Democratic majority in the Senate, is not going to do anything to improve America’s economy, and certainly not Kentucky’s economy,” he said.

But he struggled when asked about the impact of his stated goal of repealing the Affordable Care Act, a program that remains unpopular nationally but that  has been a relative success in Kentucky. The senator tried to argue that Kentuckians could keep the state’s successful health exchange, claiming it was simply a website that would need new funding.

“The website can continue but in my view the best interests of the country would be achieved by pulling out Obamacare root and branch,” he said.

Lundergan Grimes offered a spirited defense of the law while praising Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear -- and not Obama -- for showing “great courage” in implementing it.

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“We have over a half a million Kentuckians who for the first time ever are filling prescriptions, they’re going to the doctor, they’re getting checkups. I will not be a senator that rips that insurance from their hands,” she said.

Responding to Lundergan Grimes’ attacks on him as “Senator Gridlock,” McConnell did open the door to possible cooperation with the White House even if Republicans win total control of Congress this fall. He noted that he had negotiated three major bipartisan fiscal deals with Vice President Joe Biden in the last six years.

“I’m prepared to negotiate with the other side when we can find areas of agreement. But I don’t share the president’s agenda,” he said.

Follow @mikememoli for more news out of Washington.


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