Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell and Democratic challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes traded familiar barbs Wednesday while discussing agricultural issues at the Kentucky Farm Bureau headquarters in Louisville.
The 90-minute forum offered voters one of the few opportunities to contrast the two candidates in person, and covered a wide range of topics from the farm bill, immigration reform, and Affordable Care Act.
McConnell, 72, used the forum to showcase his role in tobacco settlements, Kentucky’s hemp pilot project and his overall clout in Washington.
"Kentucky has only had two Senate party leaders in its history," he said. “Alben Barkley, who led the Democrats in the 1930s and 1940s, and the fellow you’re looking at. It gives Kentucky a distinct advantage.”
At one point the five-term incumbent said he was the "change agent" in the race given the possibility of Republicans taking control of the Senate this year. McConnell also said Kentucky's federal delegation is situated to have more influence than ever, and hinted that fellow Republican Sen. Rand Paul might be president in a few years.
Grimes, meanwhile, appeared to be just as well versed on farming policy and set the tone with an aggressive speech. She stayed close to familiar talking points and continued to declare McConnell's 30-year tenure a failure.
The Democrat also picked apart McConnell's references to having influence by repeatedly noting his regular absences from agriculture committee hearings reported this week.
"When it comes to the agriculture committee, did Sen. McConnell bother to show up?” said Grimes. “No, for nearly three years he has missed every agriculture committee meeting.”
The 35-year-old secretary of state said McConnell’s poor attendance record was a reason the farm bill lapsed before it was eventually negotiated and passed into law. The accusation appeared to get under the senator’s usually tough exterior, and forced a small gaffe later on.
"I think she doesn’t really understand the legislative process,” McConnell told reporters when asked if he should step down from the committee. "If you’re the leader of one of the parties, honestly you have more consequential things to do than simply go to hearings.
"The hearings are important, (but) they are typically attended by people who are ranking members and people who just got into Washington."
When asked if being a Senate candidate had caused Grimes to miss much work, a campaign spokeswoman quickly called on another reporter.
During the forum, McConnell inserted a controversy about Grimes receiving a significant discount for her campaign bus from her father's company in his answer about the farm bill.
"Let me say this about the farm bill, it's probably not as good a deal as a $400 a day tour bus, but it's a pretty good deal," he said.
Grimes bypassed responding the jab at the forum, but she did take McConnell to task for suggesting no one was disadvantaged when the legislation lapsed.
"I’ve talked indeed with the farmers in the western part of the state who were worried that the lapse that happened on Mitch McConnell’s watch of our farm bill would have a negative impact on their ability to plant for the upcoming season," she said.
On immigration reform, McConnell said he opposes a comprehensive plan in favor of a more piecemeal approach that favors "merit-based" immigrants.
“I think we need to bust it up,” said McConnell.
The GOP leader also suggested Democrats were seeking a "fast track" pathway to citizenship for immigrants who came to the U.S. illegally in order to curry favor with a crop of new voters.
"What is holding back immigration right now is American people's legitimate concern the federal government is simply unwilling to secure the borders. And so it ruins the environment for improving legal immigration," he said.
Grimes said she favored the bipartisan bill passed by the Senate last year, but blamed McConnell for standing against those reforms.
"Unfortunately we have a senator that's out of touch with our Kentucky farmers and our Kentucky families," she said.
Farmers depend heavily on migrant workers for their labor, and the Kentucky Farm Bureau supported the Senate version last year.
Asked about bringing health care to farmers, Grimes made her strongest defense of the Affordable Health Care Act and its benefits.
So far, Grimes has kept the federal overhaul at arm’s length and has refused to say if she would have voted for the law. But with over a half-million residents signing up for insurance and the uninsured rate plummeting, Grimes said those Kentuckians should come first.
"Mitch McConnell—if he had his way—he would take us back to the days when just being a woman was a pre-existing condition," she said.
"For the first time ever, because of our governor, 500,00 Kentuckians are able to go to the doctor, kids are getting checkups before school, and many of whom are farm families in rural Kentucky."
McConnell has been a fierce critic of the law, and relished at the opportunity to tie his Democratic opponent to the president.
"She won’t use the words, but she supports Obamacare—the single worst piece of legislation that’s been passed in the last half century," he said.
The senator didn’t back off his opposition to the law either and repeated a call to repeal it “root and branch.” He also warned Kentucky would not be able to afford the cost of expanded Medicaid when it has to pick up part of the tab in future budgets.
McConnell and Grimes are set to meet again for a debate hosted by KET on Oct. 13.