By Ronnie Ellis
CNHI News Service
LEXINGTON — They call it the Lincoln Day Dinner, but when Kentucky Republicans gathered Saturday night at the Hyatt Regency, it was mostly about Mitch McConnell.
Mitch McConnell and Barack Obama.
McConnell was the star attraction, and he didn’t disappoint the 300 Republicans on hand — or at least most of them. Spotted in the crowd were some associated with the tea party, including Louisville businessman Matthew Bevin who has been mentioned as a potential 2014 primary opponent for McConnell.
Even with no announced Democratic opponent yet, McConnell made clear his 2014 election strategy: make President Barack Obama the opponent.
A campaign web video preceded McConnell’s speech and he showed another during his remarks, this one focusing on the IRS targeting of conservative groups seeking non-profit status. It is filmed in dark, foreboding light, raises alarms about the IRS controversy and even features a brief shot of Richard Nixon.
McConnell then told the crowd his 2014 race will be the most significant election in America and Democrats “would like nothing better than to take me down.”
But he pointed out that Obama only carried four Kentucky counties in 2012 and promised to win in 2014 and “go back and be Barack Obama’s worst nightmare for the last two years of his presidency.”
He said after the 2008 election, Obama and Democratic majorities in both chambers of Congress passed “a trillion dollar stimulus” (actually about $800 billion) which McConnell went on to blame for the poor economy.
Things got better in 2010, he said, when voters gave Republicans control of the House and his own party made McConnell the Minority Leader.
McConnell said Obama has “created a depression in the coal-fields,” and the man Democrats call the “chief obstructionist” called Obama “a very divisive president.” He pounded Obama on the IRS and the administration’s “arrogance of power.”
As is his recent habit, McConnell declined to take questions from reporters.
Bevin talked briefly with a couple of journalists. But he didn’t provide any clues about his plans, saying there’s really nothing to tell. When asked if he is at least considering a race, he hesitated and then said:
“When there’s a time and something to tell you, I’ll let you know.”
McConnell’s Republican Senate colleague, Rand Paul, was vacationing at Lake Cumberland with his family and didn’t attend.
He sent a video address in which he talked about issues “Sen. McConnell and I” have worked together on, from the Freedom to Fish Act to military issues. Unlike McConnell, Paul also harshly criticized the National Security Agency review of telephone records.
McConnell was preceded on the program Sixth District Congressman Andy Barr, state House Minority Whip John “Bam” Carney, state Senate President Robert Stivers and Agriculture Commissioner James Comer.
Comer — viewed by some in the party as a potential 2015 gubernatorial candidate — received a standing ovation and introduced McConnell.
Comer used one of his lines both to praise McConnell and hint at his own plans.
He said the “A-team” of the Democratic Party, referring to Gov. Steve Beshear, Lt. Gov. Jerry Abramson and other Democratic office holders, chose not to challenge McConnell in 2014 and seem to think their prospects are better in 2015.
“But I’ve got some bad news for them — they’re not going to win that race either,” Comer said as the crowd cheered.
Barr hit on his usual themes, criticizing the size and spending of the federal government and the Affordable Care Act which he called “Obamacare.” Barr said the “lesson from the (2012) election is that Washington is worse than ever.”
He criticized the IRS and NSA controversies or scandals even more forcefully: “Tyranny is just around the corner.”
Carney zeroed in on Republican hopes of taking control of the state House in 2014 when McConnell will head the ticket.
“I want to thank Sen. McConnell,” Carney said, and then, looking at McConnell seated in front of the podium, he said, “I’m proud to run with you in 2014.”
That was a double reference to the discomfort of Kentucky Democrats running last year on the same ticket with Obama as well as Republicans’ hope that McConnell’s 2014 coat tails will carry them to a majority in the state House.
Stivers said, “We are the party of Lincoln and we are the true abolitionists,” talking about Republican sponsored education legislation that he said will boost the fortunes of the poor and minorities.
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.