FRANKFORT — Newly elected as the leader of a new Republican majority in the U.S. Senate, Sen. Mitch McConnell returned to Kentucky this weekend, enjoying a victory lap of sorts with some of the state's top Republicans.
In remarks to the Republican Party of Kentucky's executive committee meeting on Saturday, McConnell thanked the state GOP for its efforts in getting him handily re-elected, said he is not giving up on efforts to find common ground with President Barack Obama and poked some fun at Bill and Hillary Clinton.
McConnell also had a message for state Republicans, who were unable to win the statehouse despite his 15-point win over Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes: "I know you share my disappointment that we didn't flip the House, but I'll say to you House members who are here, this ain't over."
Optimistic about the Republican Party's future in Kentucky, McConnell recalled the dire state of the party in an overwhelmingly Democratic state when he first began his political career in the 1970s.
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"We're not as red as Tennessee or Alabama, but we're getting a helluva lot redder than we have been," McConnell said. "So we need to finish the job. That involves electing a Republican governor, and it certainly involves flipping the House."
He added with a chuckle: "One of the great things about the House is it's up every two years, and one way of looking at it is we're only a little over a year from the filing deadline."
McConnell, in high spirits after achieving his lifelong goal of becoming Senate majority leader, promised a "major, major effort" on his part to help Republicans complete their takeover of the state.
McConnell scoffed at the idea that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would make 2016 more difficult for Kentucky Republicans if she is the Democratic presidential nominee, noting former President Bill Clinton's mid-40s wins in 1992 and 1996.
"Look, don't buy the notion that Hillary Clinton's going to carry Kentucky," he said. "I don't think she'll even be competitive in Kentucky. This is not 1992 or 1996."
McConnell recalled that in 1996, Clinton won Kentucky over former Kansas Sen. Bob Dole and Independent candidate Ross Perot by 13,000 votes, and "I beat Steve Beshear by 160,000 on the same day."
"So this myth that the Clintons are somehow magic in Kentucky is nonsense," McConnell said. "It wasn't true then, and it's certainly not true now."
The Clintons campaigned hard for Grimes against McConnell, and the senator joked Saturday that it was "fun seeing the Clintons back all the time."
"Every time Bubba comes to Kentucky, I do well," the senator said.
The senator delighted in some of the post-election details of his race against Grimes, at one point producing a copy of the exit polling data from Election Day from his inside jacket pocket.
The small but packed house at RPK headquarters cheered as McConnell read off the percentages by which he won different age groups and sexes.
"Two of my bucket list items were becoming majority leader of the Senate, obviously," McConnell said. "The other was carrying Pike County."
He added: "We smoked 'em in Eastern Kentucky."
McConnell also quoted Winston Churchill, telling the audience with a smile that "Churchill said there's nothing quite as exhilarating as being shot at and missed."
In a news conference with reporters after his remarks, McConnell said that Obama's decision to enter into a carbon emissions agreement with the Chinese and expected executive actions on immigration have not changed his strategy of trying to find common ground with the White House.
During his speech, McConnell said that he keeps "waiting for Obama to get the message and move to the center," adding that all he has heard from the president since the election is "inflammatory rhetoric."
When asked if Obama's post-election moves had changed his stated priority of finding common ground, McConnell said no, that he's "still looking for areas of cooperation."
"I'm going to be more inclined to judge what he does rather than what he says," the senator said. "I don't want to miss this opportunity for the country. Divided government has been some of the best government we've had in the last half-century. So I'm not giving up. I certainly don't think anything he's said since the election is encouraging, but it's too important to begin to make progress for the country to just write him off. He is the president. You can't write off the president."
But with conservative Republican lawmakers nearing a boil over expected executive actions from Obama on immigration, McConnell was asked if he could keep his members in line.
"It's going to be an interesting job," he said with a smile.
McConnell did say there will be a "bourbon summit" with Obama, and he joked about all the questions he has received about what kind of bourbon he and the president will enjoy.
"That'd be like saying which of your daughters is your favorite," McConnell said, adding that he might have to "draw straws" to pick a bourbon.
But McConnell has cautioned against reading too much into the kind of personal interactions that Obama has been criticized for neglecting, and on Saturday he said of the bourbon summit: "Whether it's anything beyond a PR gimmick remains to be seen."