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LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Kentucky Democrat and U.S. Senate candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes isn’t going to tell you who she voted for, no matter how many times you ask.
Grimes' refusal to answer if she voted for President Barack Obama in 2012 during a taped session with The Courier-Journal on Thursday turned into a viral video seen across the country -- with Republicans, the press and even some Democrats ripping her for the non-response. But in a debate with U.S. Senator and Republican Leader Mitch McConnell Monday here, the Kentucky secretary of state again declined to say if she backed the president of her own party, trying to avoid any association with Obama, who is deeply unpopular in Kentucky.
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“This is a matter of principle. Our constitution grants here in Kentucky the constitutional right for privacy of the ballot box, for a secret ballot. You have that right, Senator McConnell has that right, every Kentuckian has that right,” Grimes said, responding to a questioner from the moderator. “And as secretary of state, the chief election official, I’m tasked with overseeing and making sure we are enforcing all of our election laws.”
She added, “I am not going to compromise a constitutional right provided here in Kentucky in order to curry favor on one or other side or for members of the media. I’ll protect that right for every Kentuckian.”
“So you won’t answer the question,” said moderator Bill Goodman of Kentucky Educational Television.
“Every Kentuckian has the right for privacy at the ballot box. If I as chief constitutional official, Bill, don’t stand up for that right, who in Kentucky will? ” she said.
McConnell replied: “There’s also no sacred right to not announce how we vote. I voted for Mitt Romney. Proudly. I voted for John McCain. And by the way, in 2012, 116 out of 120 Kentuckian counties agreed with my judgment that we might have been in better shape now had Mitt Romney been elected.”
The debate on Monday night is the only one scheduled between McConnell and Grimes, who are in the one of the most closely-watched races in the country.
And in an hour of taking questions from Goodman, the two broke little new ground, mostly sticking to familiar talking points.
Grimes highlighted her support for raising the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 per hour, which McConnell opposes. She defended the Affordable Care Act, which has resulted in a huge drop in the number of uninsured in Kentucky, while McConnell called its repeal.
She attacked McConnell as “Senator No Show,” Senator Gridlock” and “Senator Shutdown,” and referred to the conservative Koch brothers as “his family.” She also criticized him for saying “I’m not a scientist” when asked if climate change is occurring. (Asked about climate change in this debate, McConnell waffled on the issue, noting some scientists are worried about global warming, but also quoting approvingly conservative writer George Will, who has noted some scientists in the 1970’s worried the Earth was getting too cold.)
As he has throughout this campaign, McConnell mostly attacked Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, mentioning Grimes only to note she would back their legislative ideas if she were in the Senate.
“They are after this industry. They want to shut it down,” McConnell said of Reid and Obama, saying he would defend coal jobs in Kentucky. (Economists say that the decline in coal jobs in Kentucky is largely because of the rise of natural gas as an alternative energy source, but both Grimes and McConnell continue to suggest the Obama administration is behind the coal industry’s decline.)
There were almost no memorable moments in the debate, and that could be bad for Grimes. Most polls here show her trailing McConnell, so she needed a swing in the race more than the senator. And her refusal to say who she voted for in 2012 is dominating Kentucky media coverage of the campaign, and her non-answer in the debate keeps open that question.
After the debate, Grimes declined to answer questions (as did McConnell), leaving her campaign manager Jonathan Hurst besieged with questions from reporters, who pressed him on her 2012 presidential vote. He also cited the privacy of the ballot box in refusing to answer the question.
Grimes, of course, is comfortable with another Democratic president, Bill Clinton. She will campaign alongside Hillary Clinton in Louisville on Wednesday.