Political coverage falls short in Kentucky senate debate

National reporters fail to examine Mitch McConnell's unusual statement

Grimes debate.jpg Debate Alison Lundergan Grimes and Sen. Mitch McConnell rehearse before a debate in Lexington, Kentucky on Monday night. (AP Photo/The Lexington Herald-Leader, Pablo Alcala, Pool)

All politics is local, as the old saying goes. But if Monday’s Kentucky Senate debate is any indication, the same can’t be said of political media coverage. 

Democratic candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes made national headlines during the debate for again declining to share how she voted in previous presidential elections. At the same time, however, the Washington press corps barely covered a claim by incumbent Sen. Mitch McConnell that Obamacare, unpopular in Kentucky, could be repealed without dismantling Kynect, the popular statewide healthcare exchange funded through the law. McConnell’s argument is not only factually questionable, at best, but also seems to be of much more potential consequence to the state’s voters. Monday’s debate was the only televised face-off scheduled before the November election, and the imbalanced coverage calls into question the national media’s role in one of the most closely watched Senate races in the country. 

Grimes’ non-answer received headline treatment on Web stories at CBS, NBC, ABC, and CNN. The Washington Post devoted an entire piece to the refusal, which led the Associated Press’ story, and Politico and National Journal both listed it as their top takeaway of the debate. Such stories either omitted McConnell’s claim or played it down relative to Grimes’ comment. FoxNews.com mentioned only the latter, meanwhile, and The Wall Street Journal left McConnell’s statement as its story’s kicker, unchallenged.

Neither position was entirely new, and the political press fixated on the less consequential of the two. Grimes first gave her non-answer in an interview with the editorial board of The Courier-Journal in Louisville on Thursday. McConnell professed his stance as early as May. 

Liberal media and a few national outlets, such as the AP, challenged the five-term senator’s claim back then. Indeed, an Obamacare repeal would have huge consequences for the Bluegrass State, as an estimated half-million residents have signed up for health coverage through its Kynect exchange. A Washington Post Fact Checker column soon after concluded, “the history of individual state exchanges shows it is not credible for McConnell to suggest that the state exchange would survive without the broad health-care system constructed by the Affordable Care Act, such as an individual mandate and subsidies to buy insurance.” 

Given the availability of such reporting, not to mention McConnell’s hazy logic in a race in which Obamacare has been a central theme, it’s unclear why the national media didn’t pounce on his answer Monday. What’s more, local coverage of the debate suggests that Grimes’ voting history — a sign of her allegiance to President Barack Obama — is merely one of many concerns for Kentucky voters. 

This isn’t to say Grimes’ reluctance to respond to a simple question is unimportant. But national political media haven’t challenged McConnell with the same tenacity on his Obamacare claim — a few opinion writers notwithstanding.

Grimes’ position is provocative and digestible enough for a tweet or cable clip. Coverage of statewide races, however, should provide room for both the local stance toward national politics and the local effect of national policy. The Washington press corps deserves a DART for crowding out one with the other. 

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David Uberti is a CJR staff writer and senior Delacorte fellow. Follow him on Twitter @DavidUberti. Tags: ,