Senate Debate: McConnell, McGrath spar over COVID, term limits, packing the courts

Compared to the recent presidential and vice presidential debates, Monday's debate between...
Compared to the recent presidential and vice presidential debates, Monday's debate between Mitch McConnell and Amy McGrath was far more cordial.(WAVE 3 News)
Updated: Oct. 13, 2020 at 12:22 PM EDT
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LEXINGTON, Ky. (WAVE/WKYT) - Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and challenger Amy McGrath debated Monday night for the only time before the November election.

Compared to the recent presidential and vice presidential debates, things were far more cordial at the WKYT TV studios in Lexington.

Not surprisingly, the candidates were first asked about their plans to end the coronavirus crisis. Rather than sharing her own plan, McGrath immediately went after McConnell, accusing him of not speaking up about the crisis until it impacted stock markets, adding that he took a summer vacation when he should have been focusing more on the pandemic.

“Nobody went on vacation,” McConnell said. “We actually do things like use telephones. We communicate with each other a lot.”

McGrath then said she has a plan to get kids back in school and restart the economy, but did not offer specifics.

McConnell had begun his remarks by congratulating McGrath on her military service. He also said his efforts in Washington helped provide $13 billion in coronavirus relief for Kentucky, including $1 billion for hospitals and health care workers.

“I give the president, the White House and this Congress an ‘F’ for its handling of the coronavirus,” McGrath said, adding that America makes up 5 percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of all coronavirus cases.

Countered McConnell: “She thinks we’re the problem. I think they’re the problem. What we need is a solution.”

On multiple occasions in the first 20 minutes, each candidate laughed at some of the statements made by the other.

The conversation then shifted to Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett, whose confirmation hearing began Monday. When asked if McGrath would support packing the courts if fellow Democrat Joe Biden is elected president, she said “we should work on unpacking the Senate right now ... We cannot change Washington until we change the people we send there.”

McConnell said “we’re entitled to know” where McGrath stands on the issue, adding that she still hadn’t answered the question about packing the court.

On the topic of term limits, McGrath reiterated a popular, anti-McConnell refrain about his decades working in the senate; McConnell responded with a note about Biden being in Washington even longer.

“I’m amused by her advocacy,” McConnell said of his challenger, adding that if term limits been in place, Biden’s Senate tenure would have expired before McConnell was voted in more than 35 years ago.

But McGrath said term limits are among President Donald Trump’s top issues, and that she agrees with him.

“We should have them and we should get them right now,” she said.

The candidates appeared to be on the same page regarding law-enforcement reform in light of this year’s police shooting death of Breonna Taylor and others nationwide that have sparked a national outcry.

“I have great tolerance for peaceful demonstrations,” McConnell said. “I don’t have much tolerance for violence and looting. With regard to the Taylor case ... this was an incredible tragedy, a botched job, a terrible outcome. But law enforcement has to apply the law ... I don’t have any advice to give (law enforcement leaders), but I think in terms of justice in America, we have to follow the laws as they are written.”

Added McGrath: “I’m never for looting or rioting or destruction of property or violence in any way. And I do not want to defund the police. That all said, the tragedy with Breonna Taylor was an absolute tragedy. Leaders have to take a step back and recognize that we need change in this country, that there is systemic racism that we have to tackle issues of equity and equality.”

McGrath made several references to McConnell’s decades in Washington, and at one point looked directly at the camera and said, ""Senator you’ve been there for 36 years," before asking viewers, “how’s it looking, Kentucky? Have we fixed this stuff?”

McConnell said in his last term, he was responsible for getting more than $17 billion in federal funding for the state of Kentucky.

“There are four congressional leaders,” he said. “I’m the only one not from New York or California. I left Kentucky (so the state could) punch above its weight."

After attributing the loss of Kentucky coal jobs to the President Obama administration, McConnell tried to catch McGrath off-guard when he asked her to share her plan on restoring coal jobs. She was prepared and emphasized infrastructure.

“We have water systems in Martin County that don’t have clean water,” she said. “We have sewer systems in Anderson County that need to be fixed.”

When McConnell said those issues already are being addressed, McGrath fired back, “Tell that to the people in eastern Kentucky.” gives McConnell a 96-percent chance of keeping his seat.

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