This past week Senator Mitch McConnell and Secretary of State Alison Grimes participated in the Kentucky Farm Bureau “Measure the Candidates” forum. This event, which took place in Louisville, KY at the KFB Headquarters, was strictly limited to the KFB Board of Directors, selected staff from each campaign, and selected members of the press. In addition, the forum aired only online. Whether or not the online events are effective, however, is an open question.
The event, moderated by KFB President, Mark Haney, started with each candidate giving a five minute opening statement, followed by questions from KFB Board members and then a closing statement. The questions asked ranged from international trade, to immigration, to healthcare, to environmental issues, and others, all encompassed around farm policy.
While McConnell and Grimes did agree on some issues, that was not a universal theme. For example, McConnell advocated for a piecemeal approach to immigration reform saying that is the most feasible way to get the legislation to pass, while Grimes supported a comprehensive immigration reform plan. Additionally, when the issue of healthcare approached, McConnell gave no mercy for “Obamacare” but Grimes was less tempered with the subject due to the success of Kynect in Kentucky.
While McConnell was able to speak of the legislation he passed that helped Kentucky farmers, such as the Tobacco Buyout, the higher exemption on the Estate Tax, and the passage of the Farm Bill, it seemed that Grimes came into the forum with a hard-set agenda. As a response to nearly every question asked, Grimes found a way to insert her dissatisfaction with McConnell’s attendance record at Senate agricultural committee hearings, and that under McConnell’s watch the most recent passage of the Farm Bill was delayed. McConnell responded that Grimes’ “friend and supporter, Harry Reid, must not have told her about how party leaders typically deal with committee work.” While this did not stop Grimes from continuing to interject comments concerning his attendance record, when asked by the press after the forum how many times she has missed work as Secretary of State while campaigning, Charly Norton, Grimes’ press secretary, immediately cut off the question and moved to a different reporter.
This was the first time in the Senate race that the two candidates appeared at a joint forum to discuss issues pertinent to Kentuckians. While the KFB emphasized that this was a forum (not a debate), and stated explicitly that they do not endorse political candidates, it cannot be compared to the debates we will see in the fall. McConnell arguably had nothing to gain from this forum (however, showing the KFB community that he continues to support agriculture initiatives certainly plays to his advantage) but it is a different story for Grimes. A forum such as this where the two candidates appear together gave Grimes a chance to show Kentucky that she could take on the seasoned Senator McConnell and show that she is well versed on the issues Kentuckians face, specifically agricultural issues. While it can be debated as to whether she proved herself in this forum and held her own, it certainly can be said that it did not sink her.
Of course, one interesting question we might ask is: who was watching this forum?  The event did not have great publicity: it took place in a cramped boardroom not open to the public, the livestream began at 2 p.m. on a Wednesday when people were at work, and it was only online, not televised… Just from the logistics, it doesn’t seem that this forum was out to help either candidate.
According to the Pew Research Center, during the 2012 presidential election season it was reported that 65% of internet-using registered voters (55% of all registered voters) “have gone online this election season to watch videos related to the election campaign or political issues.”  While this seems like a decent turnout when considering streaming a forum online, it must be noted that out of that 65% of internet-using registered voters, only 28% “watch live videos online of candidate speeches, press conferences, or debates.” It could be argued that 28% is quite a low proportion of the potential audience, and when you factor in that this event was for a Senate election (instead of a presidential election) and that the event was not widely publicized and took place during the work day, we may reasonably expect that the actual viewership of this event was likely much lower than 28%.
In conclusion, we may reasonably conclude that the forum likely did not hurt either candidate’s chances. While the logistics of the event were not set up to encourage a wide viewership, it must be noted that that was not the primary intention of the KFB. The KFB wanted to see how the candidates responded to agricultural issues, and seeing that both candidates accepted this invitation (while turning down several others), it is reasonable to conclude that both candidates acknowledge the importance of the rural vote in Kentucky politics. As noted, this was the first time the two candidates appeared at the same event to discuss and interact with issues pertinent to Kentucky, and reassuringly, it is not the last time the two will appear together. This forum was just a preview of what is to come this fall with McConnell and Grimes accepting the KET invitation, where the publicity and viewership of the event will be greatly prioritized.
[FN1. It must be noted that the KFB supports this forum whenever there is a major race (gubernatorial races and congressional ), and the primary reason, once again, is not debate, but rather it is to see how high profile candidates react to issues important to KFB and its members. Therefore, the viewership of this event is not as imperative as it will be in future fall debates.]
[FN2. Even though this is for a presidential election, we can use this to estimate what may be the case for a Senate election. It should be noted that presidential elections have a much greater civic response than midterm elections.]