By Ronnie Ellis
CNHI News Service
LOUISVILLE — It was supposed to be about Mitch McConnell and, in the end, it was.
But the statewide Republican Lincoln Day Dinner here Saturday night started out as much about 2016 and Rand Paul as about McConnell’s race this fall against Democratic challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes.
However, in the end, McConnell delivered the message he wanted to deliver to the 600 or so faithful here.
“We’re here tonight, friends, because our country is in trouble,” McConnell said, proceeding to lay at President Barack Obama’s feet all the country’s problems, including the “tepid” economic recovery; claiming Obama has used the IRS to intimidate people; and created a scandal at the Veterans’ Administration.
Kentucky, he said, has been particularly hard hit by the president’s policies. He began with Obamacare, although Kentucky is viewed nationally as one of the Affordable Care Act’s success stories.
“And then, of course, there’s the war on coal,” McConnell said. “It’s a dismal picture that’s created by this administration that doesn’t care about us.”
He scoffed that U.S. action on carbon emissions will have any effect on the warming global climate. But the newly proposed regulations, McConnell said, will further destroy the coal industry in Kentucky. He didn’t quite say so, but he came pretty close to suggesting Obama is destroying the country as well as Kentucky.
“If you agree with Rand Paul and me that we need to go in a different direction, what is the only thing we can do in 2014?” McConnell asked. “The only thing we can do in 2014 is to change the Senate and to change the country.”
He went on to list those states where Republicans have hopes of capturing Senate seats from Democratic incumbents and described the party’s chances of taking over the Senate as “pretty good.”
But the most important of those, he said, is in Kentucky.
If you want to help us change America, it all begins right here in Kentucky,” McConnell said. “Every crazy liberal in America is sending my opponent checks. They think I’m the presidents’ biggest problem and I’m proud of that. On Nov. 4, Kentucky will lead the Senate.”
Before McConnell’s speech, much of the evening seemed more about Paul and the 2016 election than about McConnell’s this year.
With Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee, sitting in the audience, Paul was introduced to the 600 on hand as “the next president of the United States” by Republican state Commissioner of Agriculture James Comer.
Paul’s message was about his own crusade. He talked about the need to “make the party bigger, better and bolder,” reaching out to minorities and young people who typically haven’t been sympathetic to the GOP.
Paul earlier Saturday helped open a Jefferson County Republican office in the largely African-American west end of Louisville, a continuation of his outreach to black voters. He knows – and said so Saturday – the party can’t win national elections without expanding its appeal beyond its usual conservative constituency.
For his part, Priebus called on the crowd to re-elect “the next Majority Leader of the United States Senate.” But he agreed with Paul’s assessment of the need for the GOP to reach out to minority and younger voters and spent much of his speech on that theme.
Priebus said his party is a good mid-term party but not as competitive as it must become in presidential elections. He called on Republicans to emulate Democrats’ grassroots efforts to identify and energize voters.
“We can’t just show up every four years and expect to win,” Priebus told the crowd.
Finally, toward the end of this comments, Priebus turned to this year’s election, introducing a one-minute video that proclaims “with Mitch McConnell, Kentucky leads the country.”
The video ends with the narrator saying “Obama needs Grimes, Kentucky needs McConnell.”
Priebus then introduced him as the next Majority Leader of the United States Senate, and the event finally felt like a McConnell campaign rally.
Ronnie Ellis writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at email@example.com. Follow CNHI News Service stories on Twitter at www.twitter.com/cnhifrankfort.