Kentucky Senate Debate: Democratic Challenger Refuses to Answer Whether She Voted for Obama

(Pablo Alcala/The Lexington Herald-Leader/AP Photo)

In the first and likely only debate in the Kentucky Senate race, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and his Democratic challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes traded jabs Monday evening over a range of issues including health care and voting histories.

McConnell acknowledged the website that administers the state health insurance exchange "can continue" and Grimes again refused to say whether she voted for President Obama, citing her role as the state's chief elections officer.

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When asked why she is "reluctant" to answer whether she cast a ballot for Obama in 2008 and 2012, the Kentucky secretary of state said she has "no reluctance" and instead it is a "matter of principle."

"Our constitution grants us here in Kentucky the constitutional right for privacy at the ballot box, for a secret ballot," Grimes said during the debate on Kentucky Educational Television.

"You have that right, Sen. McConnell has that right, every Kentuckian has that right and as secretary of state, the chief elections officer, I'm tasked with overseeing and making sure we are enforcing all of our election laws and I've worked very closely especially with the members of our military to ensure that the privacy at the ballot box," Grimes said.

When pressed, she still did not answer, instead saying she would not "compromise a constitutional right" in order to "curry favor on one or other side or for members of the media. I will protect that right for every Kentuckian. … If I as the chief elections officer don't stand up for that right who in Kentucky will stand up?"

Grimes has grabbed headlines over the past few days for refusing to answer whether she voted for the president, being asked first in an editorial board meeting for the Louisville Courier-Journal and then over the weekend by ABC affiliate WKBO. Grimes did tell the newspaper she was a delegate for Hillary Clinton in 2008 - the Clintons are close family friends -- and the moderator tonight asked her what separates a Clinton Democrat from an Obama Democrat.

"Growing the middle class the right way and that's by making sure that we are building from the foundation up," she answered, to which McConnell said: "There's not a dime's worth of difference between a Clinton Democrat and an Obama Democrat."

"There's also no sacred right to not answer 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."

Grimes expressed moments of passion and the two did spar on issues including minimum wage, climate change and Obamacare, which McConnell again said needed to be pulled out "root and branch." But he did express support for the website for Kentucky Kynect, the health insurance exchange Kentucky implemented under the Affordable Care Act and said the program "can continue if they like to."

"A lot of catastrophic impact on the nation's health care system, which could have been avoided by not passing this 2,700-page bill that essentially put the government in charge of America's health care. I think that was a big mistake," McConnell said. "Now with regard to Kynect it is a state exchange they can continue it if they like to, they will have to pay for it because the grant will be over."

When asked directly by the moderator Bill Goodman, host of Kentucky Tonight, if he supports Kynect, McConnell answered, "Well it's fine. I think it's fine to have a website."

The debate became heated when the two got into a back and forth over McConnell's wealth.

"I don't fault Sen. McConnell for becoming a multi-millionaire on the backs of hard-working Kentuckians, that's what America is about," Grimes said. "But he has gotten rich while consistently voting to keep Kentucky poor and we can't have a senator like that any longer."

That claim has been proven false by independent fact checkers and McConnell said he couldn't "let that stand," to which Grimes asked: "So you are not a multi-millionaire? Is he not a multi-millionaire?"

McConnell called the claim an "outrageous suggestion" and said the money was the result of an inheritance his wife received from her mother.

"She's consistently gone around all over the state and suggested I have somehow enriched myself at the public's expense. Let me tell you, her family has made more money off the government over the last 10 years than I've been paid in a salary in all my time in the Senate," McConnell fired back.

While most of the current election cycle's Senate races have several debates before election day, this is likely the only time the two will meet. It's the only debate the two campaigns would agree to.