The Kentucky Senate race — likely pitting Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell against Democratic challenger, and former Marine fighter pilot, Amy McGrath — is playing out on the airwaves. But the recent TV ads don’t always square with the facts.
- In one ad, McGrath charges that McConnell opposed further federal relief to states hurt by the coronavirus pandemic, adding, “It’s why he said we should just declare bankruptcy.” That’s not what McConnell said. The senator said bankruptcy should be a legal option for states facing money woes unrelated to the coronavirus, such as debt due to pension programs.
- In another TV spot, the McConnell camp highlights a 2018 audio clip of McGrath saying, “I am further left, I am more progressive than anybody in the state of Kentucky.” The McGrath camp charges the audio is “doctored” in a way to alter her meaning. Meanwhile, the McConnell camp hasn’t — and wouldn’t when we asked — release the full audio from the event, leaving the dispute at an impasse for fact-checking.
- The McConnell camp also claims McGrath supports abortion “even in the 9th month,” pointing to a 2018 interview in which she didn’t answer whether she supported limitations. But she has since said she supports current restrictions.
McGrath, who unsuccessfully ran for a House seat in 2018, is vying to unseat McConnell, who was first elected to the Senate in 1984 and has been the Senate majority leader since 2015. Polls taken in January showed a possible general election race could be tight, assuming McGrath wins the party’s nomination. The Democratic primary is June 23.
McConnell’s ‘Bankruptcy’ and ‘Blue State Bailout’ Remarks
The McGrath TV ad, which began airing May 16, according to Advertising Analytics, features McGrath saying, “What is leadership? And where are we seeing it in the middle of everything we’re going through right now?” She then mentions Republican Govs. Mike DeWine of Ohio and Larry Hogan of Maryland, as well as Democratic Govs. Andrew Cuomo of New York and Andy Beshear of Kentucky.
Those politicians are “showing us what real leadership is and political party has nothing to do with it. I lived this kind of leadership as a Marine,” she said.
“But Sen. McConnell sees it differently,” McGrath continues. “He doesn’t want to pass what he calls ‘Blue State Bailouts,’ even though Kentucky would get badly needed help, too. It’s why he said we should just declare bankruptcy.”
The McConnell campaign issued a response ad on May 19, featuring an image of McGrath from her ad and claiming she was “falsely attacking” McConnell. McGrath has a point that the senator made the issue political with the “blue state” characterization — and as we’ll explain, he and some governors differ on what they’d like to see in future federal aid to states — but she misrepresents what he said about bankruptcy.
McConnell was criticized by governors of both parties for his remarks, made in an April 22 radio interview on “The Hugh Hewitt Show,” and his Senate office headlined part of his comments “On Stopping Blue State Bailouts” in a press release.
But he didn’t say that states — or Kentucky specifically — “should just declare bankruptcy,” as McGrath claimed. Instead, he said, “I would certainly be in favor of allowing states to use the bankruptcy route,” when asked about states with budgetary woes predating the pandemic.
While he hasn’t committed to another relief bill that would provide assistance to state and local governments — and in that radio interview said “we’re going to push the pause button here, because I think this whole business of additional assistance for state and local governments need to be thoroughly evaluated” — he also said a few days after that interview, “There probably will be another state and local funding bill,” and that Republicans “are open to considering another bill.”
Here are McConnell’s remarks in the April 22 interview:
Hewitt, April 22: A lot of the state governments are going to be smashed up by this. But there is no Chapter 8 in the bankruptcy code. Who are you going to, you know, for states, no states can go bankrupt. Local governments can go bankrupt and reorganize. Who are you going to task to lead the effort on deciding what to do or not to do for the states?
McConnell: Yeah, well, I think it’s going to be a broad discussion without, you know, throughout the conference. I mean, we all represent states. We all have governors regardless of party who would love to have free money. And that’s why I said yesterday we’re going to push the pause button here, because I think this whole business of additional assistance for state and local governments need to be thoroughly evaluated. You raised yourself the important issue of what states have done, many of them have done to themselves with their pension programs. There’s not going to be any desire on the Republican side to bail out state pensions by borrowing money from future generations.
So this is a much bigger conversation than we’ve had providing assistance for small business because the government shut them out, put them down, put them out of business, or assistance to hospitals which were overwhelmed by the COVID-19 disease. This is a very different decision. These are all taxing authorities, just like we are, and I think that’s why we need to have a fulsome conference-wide discussion among Senate Republicans before we go down this path.
Hewitt: I agree. I think people do not understand how badly mismanaged some states have been, and their unfunded liabilities. And if they were in the private sector, they would have to reorganize under the bankruptcy code. But there is no bankruptcy code chapter. Do you think that we need to invent one for states so that they can discharge some of these liabilities that were put in place by previous governors like, I mean, Jerry Brown ran a giveaway program for public employee unions that was just astonishing, and as did Gray Davis, as did, you know, a lot of Democratic governors, Illinois is probably the worst, and Connecticut. They’ve just given money away for years to people who aren’t working.
McConnell: Yeah, I would certainly be in favor of allowing states to use the bankruptcy route. It saves some cities. And there’s no good reason for it not to be available. My guess is their first choice would be for the federal government to borrow money from future generations to send it down to them now so they don’t have to do that. That’s not something I’m going to be in favor of.
The senator’s comments didn’t go over well with governors of both parties. Hogan, the Republican governor of Maryland, said, “Mitch McConnell probably regrets saying that. If he doesn’t regret it yet, I think he will regret it. And I think he’s going to change his mind about that.”
Cuomo, the Democratic governor of New York, called the bankruptcy suggestion “one of the really dumb ideas of all time,” and objected to McConnell’s office framing the issue as a “blue state bailout.”
Hogan and Cuomo, chair and vice chair, respectively, of the National Governors Association, had called for $500 billion in federal aid directly to the states to help cover “drastic state revenue shortfalls” due to the pandemic and stay-at-home orders meant to combat it. “We must be allowed to use any state stabilization funds for replacement of lost revenue, and these funds should not be tied to only COVID-19 related expenses,” the NGA said in an April 11 press release.
McConnell, in the April 22 interview and others, has said he wants any further state and local government funding tied specifically to COVID-19.
The McGrath campaign told us: “In fact, Kentucky’s largest newspaper, the Louisville Courier Journal, reported that it was McConnell’s preference that states file for bankruptcy over large-scale federal aid,” pointing to an article in the paper that said McConnell had said “he would rather let state governments file for bankruptcy than give them a federal ‘blank check’ amid the coronavirus pandemic.”
In the radio interview, McConnell did say, “we’re not ready to just send a blank check down to states and local governments to spend anyway they choose to. We had a tranche for them in the first bill, the $2.2 trillion dollar bill. It has to be coronavirus-related. And I think we need to have a full debate not only about if we do state and local, how will they spend it.” He added: “Look, the only solution is ultimately to begin to open up,” meaning allowing businesses to reopen.
But in subsequent interviews in the days after his “bankruptcy” comment, McConnell stressed that he was saying it should be “an option” and that he didn’t want any future federal aid to “fix age-old problems” in states “wholly unrelated” to the coronavirus pandemic.
“I wasn’t saying they had to take bankruptcy. I think it’s just an option to be looked at, that unfortunately states don’t have that option now, cities do,” he said in an April 27 Fox News Radio interview. “I wasn’t necessarily recommending it, but I was pointing out that they have their own fiscal problems that predate the coronavirus, and I was not interested in borrowing money from future generations to fix age-old problems that states have that they created themselves wholly unrelated to this.”
He said there “probably will be another state and local funding bill” and that “we do want to help them with expenses that are directly related to the coronavirus outbreak.” But, he said, “we need to make sure that we achieve something that will go beyond simply sending out money.”
In a Fox News TV interview on April 30, he said, “I don’t think many states would choose that option,” meaning bankruptcy. “But the point is we’re not interested in borrowing money from future generations to send down to states to help them with bad decisions they’ve made in the past unrelated to the coronavirus epidemic.”
And he made similar comments in an April 27 Fox News interview, saying that “we’re certainly open to considering additional assistance to state and local governments, that’s on top of what we have already done in the CARES Act.”
The CARES Act, or the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, provided $150 billion to state and local governments to “offset expenses stemming from the pandemic,” as an analysis of the legislation from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office described it.
In an op-ed published in the Courier-Journal on May 14, McConnell said Kentucky had received more than $1.7 billion and had “flexibility” to use the money for “salaries of first responders, health care professionals and others fighting this pandemic,” as well as the “costs of testing and contact tracing” or distributing money to Kentucky families. He also argued that the impact on the state from the legislation is greater than that, since the act included money for housing assistance, forgivable loans for businesses, airport funding and more. That’s the law that expanded unemployment benefits and provided rebates to Americans earning less than certain income thresholds.
But state and local officials, such as the NGA, have called for even more flexible funding that would allow them to cover tax revenue losses sustained because of the economic impact of the pandemic, losses that they warn could lead to layoffs of government employees and cuts to government services. On April 20, two days before McConnell spoke on Hugh Hewitt’s show, the Louisville Metro Council wrote to McConnell, asking for such “general fund relief.”
The McGrath campaign noted the CARES Act “did not include funding to cover states’ budget shortfalls due to the coronavirus pandemic” and pointed us to a news article on an April 30 report from the Kentucky state budget director estimating the state could face up to a $500 million revenue shortfall this fiscal year, which ends June 30, due to the economic fallout of the pandemic.
We asked McConnell’s campaign if the senator supported additional funding that states could use to cover those coronavirus-related revenue shortfalls.
“Leader McConnell has repeatedly said further state and local assistance must be for problems brought on by the coronavirus pandemic,” campaign Press Secretary Katharine Cooksey responded, citing another April 22 interview in which McConnell said, “We’re interested in trying to help them with anything related to the coronavirus. … We’re going to weigh the impact of what we’ve already added to the national debt and make certain that if we provide additional assistance for state and local governments, it’s only for coronavirus related matters. We’re not interested in solving their pension problems for them.”
On May 11, McConnell said of the prospect of another coronavirus relief bill, “We’re basically assessing what we’ve done already.” He told CNN, according to the cable network: “I don’t think we have yet felt the urgency of acting immediately. That time could [come], but I don’t think it has yet.” Four days later, the Democratic-controlled House passed another relief bill that includes nearly $1 trillion for states, cities and Native American tribes, but it faces Republican opposition. The New York Times described the bill as “more a messaging document than a viable piece of legislation.”
So, McConnell hasn’t committed to the kind of flexible, not-tied-to-COVID-19-expenses relief some local and state officials, such as the NGA, have requested. And he, and his Senate office, have indicated he “doesn’t want to pass what he calls ‘Blue State Bailouts,’” as McGrath says in the campaign ad. But that glosses over the fact McConnell has said he’s “open” to further state and local aid, provided it’s coronavirus-related.
And the ad is wrong to claim he said Kentucky “should just declare bankruptcy.” He said it should be a legal option for states facing budget woes unrelated to the pandemic.
McGrath’s ‘Progressive’ Quote
In its response ad, the McConnell campaign uses an audio clip of McGrath from a 2018 fundraiser saying, “I am further left, I am more progressive than anybody in the state of Kentucky.”
In yet another TV ad, launched May 20, McGrath counters, “Mitch McConnell wants you to believe” she said that quote, “but that’s ridiculous. It’s doctored audio.”
How is the audio doctored? The McGrath campaign told us: “The audio has been edited to deliberately alter its meaning and Senator McConnell should release the entire audio.”
The McConnell camp used the clip last year as well. In a radio ad response, which the McGrath campaign shared with us, McGrath said McConnell “cut out half the sentence.” She went on to say she was talking about “not taking money from gun lobbyists” and that she “compared myself to anyone in Kentucky who had served in that office.”
The campaign also told us that it “did not record that audio,” when we asked if the McGrath camp could provide it.
We asked the McConnell campaign if it would share the full audio of the event with us, so we could settle the dispute. But we had no luck there, either.
Cooksey, the McConnell campaign press secretary, told us McGrath’s responses to the audio clip have been “evolving.”
“Her 2018 campaign’s original response to this audio was to acknowledge that her views ‘on many things are pretty progressive.’ Then McGrath couldn’t recall the context of the quote, said ‘it was essentially a joke,’ and now she claims it’s doctored,” Cooksey said.
But that’s not quite right. The full quote from her 2018 campaign manager in the first instance was that: “Amy’s positions on many things are pretty progressive. Others are less so.” And he also said, according to the Lexington Herald-Leader, that he wasn’t sure of the context. That was in August 2018, after Rep. Andy Barr, whom McGrath was trying to unseat, used the clip, reportedly from a fundraiser in Massachusetts, in an attack ad.
In a September 2018 TV interview, McGrath was asked whether her comment was “a joke” by the reporter. She responded: “That was, yeah, I mean, it was essentially a joke, but it was based off of one issue, right. And I was talking about the fact that I was more progressive than anyone who has ever held this seat, on a particular issue.”
We simply can’t determine whether McGrath has a legitimate complaint about the use of the audio clip without the full remarks, which the McConnell campaign wouldn’t provide.
The McGrath campaign noted that she “was an independent for 12 years and considered running for Congress as an independent in 2018.”
The McConnell ad also claims McGrath is “100% pro-abortion even in the 9th month.” McGrath responded to that in her ad as well, saying, “Of course I don’t support late-term abortions.”
The McGrath campaign also told us the claim is “false” and that McGrath “supports current federal restrictions on abortion.”
The citation in the ad is for an article about an April 2018 radio interview in which she doesn’t answer whether there should be any limitations on abortion when asked. But the campaign later said she respected current law, which includes restrictions, and McGrath herself has since said restrictions on abortion are “reasonable” and “enough.”
“You don’t think there should be any limitations at all on abortion?” radio host Larry Glover asked McGrath in the April 2018 interview, according to the Lexington Herald-Leader. “I don’t think government should be involved in making a decision on a woman’s body.” When pressed again — “So you think a woman on the way to the hospital to give birth could decide to abort it instead?” Glover asked — McGrath repeated her response: “I don’t think the government should be involved in a woman’s right to choose what is happening to her body.”
But McGrath talked about supporting current restrictions in subsequent interviews. In an October 2018 interview with Lawrenceburg, Kentucky’s Anderson News, she said: “The claim that I’m somehow for abortion in the ninth month is offensive and ridiculous. … There are ample restrictions on abortions and I am opposed to late term abortions (except when it comes to issues of the life of the mother).” In a July 2019 interview with Louisville’s Courier-Journal, she said: “I think there are enough restrictions on abortion and they’re reasonable. So right now, you can’t walk into a clinic eight months pregnant and get an abortion, you can’t do it and that’s reasonable.”
As we’ve written before, late-term abortions are rare. The most recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report on abortions in the U.S. found that 1.2% were performed at or after 21 weeks gestational time, according to 2016 data, and 65.5% of abortions were performed in the first eight weeks of gestation. The CDC reported similar figures for 2015.
Abortion restrictions vary by state; federal restrictions block Medicaid and other federal health programs from covering abortion except in cases of rape, incest, or endangerment of the woman’s life. Kentucky prohibits abortions after 20 weeks unless there’s a threat to the mother’s health. Forty-three states total have some type of gestational limit, according to the Guttmacher Institute, with exceptions for the health and/or life endangerment of the mother.
The ad also says McGrath “wanted President Trump impeached,” and it’s true she said, “I would have voted to impeach and convict on both counts.” And it features a 2018 TV interview in which McGrath said building a border wall, as Trump supports, is “absolutely stupid.” She went on to say that “it’s a ninth century solution to a 21st century problem” and that she would vote “no” on funding for a wall “unless it came in some sort of package where we got DACA recipients to be full citizens.”