Kentucky showdown: McConnell and Grimes debate farm issues

By Jeff Nalley

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



LOUISVILLE, August 21, 2014 -Kentucky farmers got a ringside seat Wednesday in a hotly-contested battle between Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell and Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes. While there weren't any knock out punches, the event provided an opportunity for Grimes, 35, to demonstrate her passion for change and McConnell, 72, to weigh in as the more experienced and knowledgeable statesman.

Both candidates appeared before the Kentucky Farm Bureau's Board of Directors here yesterday in a 90-minute “Meet the Candidate” forum - the first time since the annual Fancy Farm Picnic earlier in the month that they've appeared together. But in this venue dating back to the 1940's, farmer leaders of the state's largest agriculture organization presented their policy positions on issues and offered questions to both candidates. They witnessed differences in both style and substance.

Grimes was on the offensive challenging McConnell's attendance record on the Senate Agriculture Committee and heaping blame on the delay of approving a new farm bill last year. She approached the podium to deliver responses to every question and sometimes sounded nervous in her tone.

“An honest day's work for an honest day's pay- that's what our farmers expect. But what we have is a senator that doesn't show up to the agriculture committee meetings.  We have a senator that doesn't speak up when bipartisan legislation is formulated. He doesn't show up when it comes to the conference committee,” Grimes said.

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McConnell, who sat calmly at the table in the Kentucky Farm Bureau board room throughout the debate, said no one was disadvantaged by the lapse in the farm bill and delivered matter-of-fact responses that demonstrated his long familiarity with agricultural policy.

“The lapse in having an active farm bill was a part of the inevitable legislating that goes back and forth maneuvering for advantage” he said. McConnell noted that when it comes to bipartisanship, he has been the one cutting deals with people like Vice President Joe Biden over New Year's Eve 2012 to avert the fiscal cliff and extend the farm bill.

“The maneuvering actually brought a better bill,” McConnell countered.

Read more about how McConnell helped guide the farm bill extension here.

In response to farmer questions on maintaining and expanding global trade, Grimes said the effort should start with a jobs plan.

“I'm the only candidate in this race that has a jobs plan that is looking out for our farmers to actually level the playing field and end the currency manipulation we have with China,” she said.

McConnell was critical of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and the Obama administration's effort on trade.

“We've done three trade agreements during this administration and they were all negotiated by the previous administration. They don't even have trade promotion authority on the books. This has been the most anti-trade administration in memory,” he said.

McConnell believes Washington's best effort for future farm opportunities lies in expanded trade, while also citing his role in advancing hemp provisions in the farm bill.

“I hope the president meant it in the state of the union that he meant it when he said he was going to promote trade.  We were all skeptical when within 24 hours after that Majority Leader Harry Reid said we're not doing trade this year.  We've got wonderful agriculture in this country.  We need to be able to sell overseas. We need trade agreements” he said.

Grimes says she supports better risk management tools, placing an emphasis on crop insurance.

“The 2014 Farm Bill, no thanks to Senator McConnell, it's the jobs bill. It helps to reduce our deficit and strengthen crop insurance which has conservation compliance for farmers. It does some great things. Moving forward we need to make sure we're improving crop insurance, that we're watching out for over burdensome regulations and we're making sure that our farmers have the safety net that they depend on and most importantly a senator that won't let that safety net lapse,” she said.

McConnell noted that crop insurance never lapsed throughout the almost three year debate over a new farm bill and cited his leadership responsibilities in eventually getting the bill passed. In the process, he criticized Grimes over allegations that she rented a campaign bus at below-market rates in potential violation of campaign finance laws.

“Let me say this about the farm bill. It's probably not as good a deal as a $400 dollar tour bus, but it's a pretty good deal,” he noted.

During a press conference later, Grimes described the attack as “baseless bullying accusations.” Her campaign has maintained that it pays fair market rates for the bus rental.

On immigration reform, McConnell made the case that a comprehensive package is not the best solution, noting how detrimental large bills like Obamacare have been for Kentuckians.

“I think we need to bust it up. What is holding back immigration right now is the American people's legitimate concern that the federal government is simply unwilling to secure the border. It ruins the environment for legal immigration” he said.

Grimes chided McConnell for a lack of leadership on the issue. 

“I too, had hoped that we had a senator that could reach out across the aisle and participate in bipartisan measures that came out of the Senate. There's work we need to do to reform.”

Grimes repeatedly emphasized the need for change in the U.S. Senate, noting that it was time to send Kentucky's senior statesman “out to pasture.”

McConnell charged that a vote for Grimes is a vote for the status quo and that he, as potentially the new Senate majority leader if the GOP gains control, could bring more change.

“If elected, her first vote will be to make Harry Reid the majority leader of the Senate one more time.  He will not allow any votes to push back in the war on coal. He will not allow any effort to stop the waters of the US regulation, “he said.

“If you're concerned about our country and the direction you're taking, the change agent in this race is me. I would be the leader of a new majority to take America in a new direction.”

Ultimately, the race will be determined by voter turnout in what is expected to be one of the most expensive Senate races in the country. In that regard, McConnell may have his work cut out for him.

During the May primary, Kentuckians cast 213,608 votes for McConnell versus 125,775 votes for his tea party challenger Matt Bevin. Three other candidates attracted about 16,000 votes out of the total 354,991 GOP votes counted, according to the Secretary of State.

In the Democratic primary, Grimes won 307,925 votes out of 402,639 cast, handily defeating three challengers.


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