Mitch McConnell had a straight-forward message for the 35 or so who showed up here late Saturday afternoon for his campaign stop.
McConnell is running for re-election to the U.S. Senate seat he’s held since 1984 and faces Republican Matt Bevin in the May 20 primary. He’s an overwhelming favorite to win the primary and then square off against the Democrats’ primary favorite, Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundegan Grimes.
“Let’s recapture this country. I hope you want to take this country back,” McConnell said, speaking in the Metcalfe Circuit Courtroom. “Help me change this country.”
The best way to that, McConnell told them, is to “change the Senate,” not by electing a “new face for the status quo,” referring to Grimes, but by sending him back for a sixth-term.
It was pretty clear who McConnell thinks has hijacked the country – Democratic President Barack Obama who lost Kentucky twice by wide margins. The first African-American president remains widely unpopular in Kentucky.
“These people (in Obama’s administration) don’t understand how we live,” McConnell said, speaking in this town of about 1,600 which is county seat to Metcalfe County with a population of about 10,000. “They’re all college graduates and community organizers.”
(Republicans often mock Obama’s experience as a community organizer in Chicago before entering politics.)
“An administration that will send the IRS after you – not for tax cheating but for speaking up – is an administration that needs to be stopped,” McConnell said, referring to Republican claims the IRS targeted conservative non-profit groups which raised money for political ads.
The only way to do that this year, said the Senate Minority Leader, “is to change the Senate. If you want to change the country, my friends, then change the Senate” where Democrats hold a 53-45 edge with two independents caucusing with Democrats for a 10-vote margin.
He said Republicans’ chances of changing the Senate “are pretty good, pretty good,” reeling off several states where Republicans think they can defeat incumbent Democrats and noting that the party of a president in his sixth year traditionally loses on average about six seats in mid-term elections.
McConnell reminded them that as Minority Leader he has “a huge target on my back” by Democrats and liberals. What he didn’t tell them is that his is a seat Democrats think they have a shot of winning, which would make it nearly impossible for Republicans to take control of the Senate. And Democrats aren’t the only ones gunning for McConnell.
If the McConnell supporters needed a reminder that McConnell may be facing the toughest challenge since he came from behind to defeat incumbent Democrat Walter “Dee” Huddleston to win his seat in 1984, all they had to do was look across the street.
A half dozen Bevin supporters were standing on the corner behind “Bevin” signs as McConnell arrived.
But Metcalfe Circuit Clerk Tommy Garrett said he doesn’t detect as much Bevin support and activity in Metcalfe County as he’s heard from some other counties. And Monroe County Attorney Wes Stephens, who had driven over from Tompkinsville to hear McConnell speak, said his county will go for the incumbent. Both said Bevin had more support in neighboring Barren County.
Even Chris Jessee, one of the Bevin supporters, was unsure how his man will do May 20 in Metcalfe County.
“It’s kind of up in the air. It might be close,” said Jessee, sounding more hopeful than confident.
Jessee is disappointed the two Republicans won’t face each other in a debate. But it’s not unusual for incumbents whose polling indicates they’re ahead to decline to appear on the same stage with a challenger.
McConnell clearly is turning his attention to the general election and Grimes, although he never calls her by name. As he did Saturday, he prefers to talk about Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., while Grimes tries to keep the focus on McConnell’s long tenure in the bitterly partisan national capitol.