By Ronnie Ellis
CNHI News Service
CAVE CITY — Splits in the Kentucky Republican Party were subtly on display here Saturday evening – if you knew what to watch.
Around 400 gathered at the Cave City Convention Center for the annual Barren County Lincoln Day Dinner but this one was different from past dinners.
Long-time party chairwoman Golda Walbert, along with her allies John Robert Miller and former County Clerk Pam Browning, slowly grew the party’s influence from one-time afterthought in traditionally Democratic Barren County to the party which now largely controls county government. But Walbert retired as party chair as all three began to make room for younger Republicans at the same time the tea party has become a force in the state and local parties.
The one-time traditional, establishment GOP is in the hands of more impatient, more ideological Republicans who have little patience for compromise or business as usual.
Saturday night’s featured speaker was Louisville investment manager Matt Bevin, the insurgent challenger to the ultimate Kentucky establishment Republican, U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell. A lot of people were here who might never have been seen at past Lincoln Day Dinners usually held at Barren River State Park. McConnell wasn’t there, instead attending another Lincoln Day Dinner in Grayson County.
Familiar faces sat at several tables, many in the back of the room and at times they seemed a bit out of place. Browning and Miller were both were recognized by speakers – but they weren’t part of the official program. New party co-chairs Mark Haines and D.T. Froedge hit on themes important to tea party Republicans – spending, debt, and government encroachment on individual decisions.
“We have an excellent chance of taking both houses in the Kentucky legislature and we have an excellent chance of taking both houses of Congress,” Froedge told the crowd. “We cannot let our state be taken down an Alice in Wonderland path to socialism.”
While Haines and Froedge spoke from the podium, it was former County Judge/Executive David Dickerson who seemed to be in charge. Dickerson is a vocal supporter of Bevin and just as vocal a critic of McConnell and he worked hard to get a large contingent of Bevin supporters at the dinner.
Bevin made some headway in his self-described “long shot” campaign against McConnell. When he was introduced, maybe a third of the crowd stood and applauded loudly. But when Bevin finished his speech, at least half the room rose to their feet.
Steve Birge, a local optometrist, said before the meeting many Republicans didn’t quite know what to make of Bevin while they knew what they had with McConnell. But after Bevin’s speech, Birge said he liked what he’d heard – although he hadn’t yet decided to switch allegiance.
No one who spoke from the stage even mentioned McConnell by name.
But the McConnell forces on hand seemed to sense they were on Bevin’s turf. Some sat at tables in the rear of the room and sometimes shifted uncomfortably in their chairs.
State Sen. David Givens, R-Greensburg, usually aligned with McConnell, went out of his way to draw attention to Jenean Hampton, the Warren County tea party activist challenging Bowling Green’s state Rep. Jody Richards – perhaps at the urging of Dickerson and others. Hamilton is a very public Bevin supporter.
U.S. Congressman Brett Guthrie, R-Bowling Green, owes his seat to McConnell. McConnell tipped off Guthrie four years ago that then incumbent Republican Congressman Ron Lewis intended to withdraw from a campaign for re-election, so Guthrie was ready to file for the office when Lewis withdrew just before the filing deadline. Saturday night, Guthrie acknowledged differences within the party.
Without mentioning McConnell, Bevin or the tea party, Guthrie acknowledged there is an internal “debate within the party.” That’s fine, Guthrie said. The debate is healthy and good for the party. But after the primary, Guthrie said, Republicans must close ranks so the party can take over the U.S. Senate and stand in opposition to anything Democratic President Barack Obama proposes in his final two years in office.
That line came straight out of the McConnell playbook.
But even Froedge – often a critic of anything to do with Washington or the Republican establishment – seemed to understand the real battle will come in November after the various Republican factions have their primary.
“After May, we must come together,” Froedge told the crowd.
At least that would have pleased McConnell had he been on hand.
Ronnie Ellis writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow CNHI News Service stories on Twitter at www.twitter.com/cnhifrankfort.