As primary nears, McConnell talks like the winner he expects to be

syoungman@herald-leader.comMay 18, 2014 

BOWLING GREEN — Although a closely watched primary election awaits him Tuesday, U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell never mentioned challenger Matt Bevin as he campaigned across south-central Kentucky on Saturday.

Neither did he mention likely Democratic nominee Alison Lundergan Grimes by name.

Kentucky's senior senator talked instead about himself, and his wife and companion on the campaign trail, former Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao. He talked about Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid a little bit, and he rattled off the names of local politicians who helped McConnell during his first race 30 years ago.

But mostly, McConnell talked about President Barack Obama.

From parades to meet-and-greets with supporters — with the two black Suburbans carrying McConnell and his team almost but never quite running into the campaign buses of Bevin and Grimes — McConnell eschewed a closing argument for the primary in favor of honing his opening salvo for the Nov. 4 general election.

Striving for a sixth term while saddled with dangerously low approval numbers, McConnell has reduced his opening message for the fall campaign to one very simple offer for Kentuckians: Here's your last chance to vote against Obama.

"My opponent can send out appeals to the left-wing base of the Democratic Party all across the country and say send me your money and help me retire the president's number one problem," McConnell told a roomful of supporters at his Warren County headquarters. "I'm proud of being the president's number one problem."

For a man not known for displays of even imperceptible emotion, McConnell was clearly in a good mood, waving and throwing thumbs up to a cheering crowd as he and Chao navigated the brief route of the Adairville Strawberry Festival parade from the back seat of a red Camaro.

He cracked jokes everywhere he went.

"My opponent is able to raise a lot of money because she's running against me," he said. "I'm able to raise a lot of money because I am me. So in a sense, you get a picture here, I'm raising money for both sides."

At each stop, there was evidence that McConnell's efforts to portray himself as the man who would stop the president were taking hold among the faithful.

"The fact that our president would like nothing better than to get him out of the Senate, to me is a pretty good reason to vote for him," said James Henry Snider, chairman of the Simpson County Republican Party. "And I'm really anxious to see what he can do as majority leader of the Senate."

To Grimes' campaign, McConnell's focus on Obama was a desperate attempt to distract from his 30-year record.

"During Senator Gridlock's reign, we have seen record-high unemployment and job loss," Grimes senior adviser Jonathan Hurst said of McConnell in an email. "Thousands of our quality coal and manufacturing jobs have been victims of his three decades of failed leadership in the Senate. The men and women of Kentucky deserve a champion in the U.S. Senate — not a career politician with no plan for the future, who hopes to distract and deceive voters into giving him another six years in Washington, D.C."

While Saturday had a general election feel to it, Bevin still stands between the senator and Grimes. McConnell barely acknowledged Tuesday's primary and in no way referenced Bevin, saying only that he thought he would see a good outcome Tuesday, "and then we move on to the main event."

When asked what kind of margin he needed over Bevin, McConnell joked, "by one more than the other guy."

Throughout the past week, ahead of a Bluegrass poll that showed him down by 20 percentage points to McConnell, Bevin remained determined, steadfast in his belief that he would defeat the five-term incumbent.

His schedule had him devoting time to the conservative hotbed of Northern Kentucky ahead of a push Monday that will take him to every region of the state before returning to Louisville, where he will vote Tuesday.

"Mitch McConnell has spent millions of dollars on false character assassinations of Matt Bevin yet we are still gaining new supporters every day," Bevin spokeswoman Sarah Draud said Sunday. "Conservatives are realizing that a career politician with a record of voting for amnesty, bailouts and funding Obamacare can't win in the fall. Lies and mudslinging aren't going to change the fact that Matt Bevin is the only Republican in this race who can beat Grimes."

In remarks to reporters, McConnell appeared to start sowing the seeds of reconciliation after an at-times nasty primary, saying, "We're all going to be unified going into the general election."

As part of his case to voters to promote him to majority thorn in Obama's side, McConnell talked at length about how he moved from the back corner of the Senate ("We don't want to go to the back bench in Kentucky.") and about the odds of Republicans retaking the Senate, and he offered his audiences a briefing on other races that sounded as if it was straight out of a boardroom at the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

While Bevin and Grimes see McConnell's three decades in office as a liability, McConnell is trying to lean into it, making it an asset by convincing voters his seniority makes him a more effective nuisance for Obama.

Of his lengthy tenure, McConnell said, "People look at that I guess in one of two ways: They either say you've been there too long, or you're indispensable. Obviously I'm hoping for the latter."

Thus the senator saved his harshest critiques for Obama, warning again and again that America was on the verge of becoming a "Western European country" under the president's direction, dusting off Mitt Romney's message in a state where the message worked.

"Now the president and his followers wouldn't have put it this way when they got elected, but that's exactly what they had in mind," McConnell said. "They wanted to turn us into a Western European country."

But while the senator reminds his supporters about the time "the president went to Cairo back in 2009 and made a much publicized speech to the Muslim world," issues that could hurt McConnell in the fall occasionally peek out.

In Bowling Green, a local television news reporter reminded McConnell of Grimes' almost singular focus on the crowd-pleasing issue of raising the minimum wage, an issue polls show to be a slam-dunk.

Calling raising the minimum wage "a really bad idea," McConnell, who has consistently voted against such a measure, seemed to hint he would be open to voting in favor iof it down the road.

"The last thing we need in this jobless recovery is fewer jobs, and so I think it's a really bad idea at this particular time," he said. "There may be other situations in which raising the minimum wage is a good idea. It's not a good idea right now with the job loss that we've experienced and the high unemployment we have."

To be sure, a "shootout," as McConnell put it, awaits after Tuesday, and he's hoping Kentuckians will join him.

"If you want to change America, the first step is to change the Senate," McConnell said. "If we're not happy with what's been going on in the past six years and we want to begin to take our country back, the place to start is right here in the Commonwealth of Kentucky. Because we'll be in the cross hairs of this great national debate about what America ought to be like.

Sam Youngman: (502) 875-3793. Twitter: @samyoungman. Blog: bluegrasspolitics.bloginky.com.

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