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In Kentucky Senate debate, both McConnell, Grimes duck a big question

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Pablo Alcala/The Lexington Herald-Leader/AP

(Read caption) Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky and Democratic opponent, Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, rehearse with host Bill Goodman before their appearance on "Kentucky Tonight" television broadcast live from KET studios in Lexington, Ky., Monday.

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She did it again. And he did, too. In Monday’s first-and-only debate in the marquee Kentucky race for US Senate, incumbent Republican Mitch McConnell and Democrat challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes each ducked a high-profile question from the moderator.

Of course, politicians dodge questions all the time. The question about this evasion is: What’s the political calculus behind it, and will it hurt them?

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Let’s start with Ms. Grimes, Kentucky’s secretary of state. On Friday, a video went viral of her refusing – four times – to answer a question about whether she voted for President Obama. It was put to her during an interview with the editorial board of The Courier-Journal of Louisville, Ky.

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Senator McConnell equates Grimes with the president, who is very unpopular in Kentucky. In the newspaper interview, she dances around the simple question, saying the election isn’t about the president but about jobs, and that she was a delegate in 2008 for Hillary Rodham Clinton

She was ridiculed from the left to the right, and the left-leaning host of NBC's "Meet the Press," Chuck Todd, said she “disqualified herself.”

On Monday, she put a bit more meat on her answer, explaining that as secretary of state in charge of elections, she has to stand up for the right to a secret ballot. “If I as chief election official … don’t stand up for that right, who in Kentucky will?” she asked KET television moderator Bill Goodman.

In the past, Grimes has said she voted for Mrs. Clinton in the 2008 primary. The downside of revealing her vote now is that her words can be used in a McConnell ad against her.

“Grimes apparently has made the calculation that it’s better to not answer the question than it is to answer it and have the words ‘I voted for Obama’ used against her in a seven-figure television ad buy,” said Courier-Journal political reporter Joseph Gerth in an e-mail.

Is that going to hurt her?

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Some say, probably not. This campaign is full of blaring negative noise on both sides. Her evasions were obvious, but it’s also assumed that she voted for Mr. Obama. She was an Obama delegate in 2012, and she comes from a high-profile Democratic family. Average viewers might wonder instead why a question is being asked that everyone already knows the answer to.

“Sometimes candidates get a question where there is no winning answer, and they are better off just letting it ride,” says Stephen Voss, a political scientist at the University of Kentucky in Lexington.

One could say the same thing for a much-anticipated McConnell duck on a question about climate change – relevant in a state that relies on the coal industry for electricity and jobs. In the past, the senator has remarked, “I’m not a scientist,” so he can’t delve into climate change's causes.

When asked on Monday whether he stands by his “not a scientist” position and whether he believes in even discussing climate change, the senator brushed past the question.

“There are a bunch of scientists who feel that this is a problem,” he answered. But the main thing to understand is that his job is “to fight for coal jobs in our state and this administration has destroyed 7,000 of them.”

McConnell's political calculus is similar to Grimes's. He “has decided that not answering whether climate change is manmade is better than siding against the fossil fuel industry that has contributed millions to his political committees, or siding with climate-change deniers,” says Mr. Gerth.

Some observers think this deflection doesn’t matter much, either. The reason is that the two candidates are both pro-coal, so “this isn’t a voting issue,” says Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community at the University of Kentucky in Lexington. 

“The whole question of climate gets ignored because they’re both embracing coal,” Mr. Cross explains.