ELIZABETHTOWN — Kentucky Republicans will have to wait a while longer to see U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and presumptive GOP gubernatorial nominee Matt Bevin on the same stage.
McConnell and Bevin were both scheduled to attend the Rotary Club luncheon here Tuesday, but Bevin backed out, telling The Associated Press that he had a "scheduling conflict."
And Saturday's statewide Lincoln Day Dinner in Lexington was supposed to be a public show of unity for the party, but McConnell told reporters that he won't attend because of a rare Sunday session in the U.S. Senate that he scheduled to address the expiring Patriot Act.
With only 83 votes separating Bevin and state Agriculture Commissioner James Comer, and with a recanvass of the vote totals scheduled for Thursday, McConnell and other Republicans exhibited patience this week, pledging to support the nominee whoever it may be.
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For McConnell and his allies, that is a tougher task if Bevin holds on to win the nomination, as expected.
The Louisville businessman ran against McConnell in a contentious primary for senate last year, and he refused to endorse the senator after losing by about 25 percentage points.
At an event last week in Lexington, Bevin claimed that he did support McConnell, telling a small audience of Republicans that his lack of support for the senator was an invention of the media. But a number of McConnell allies have said in recent days that Bevin isn't telling the truth, and that his comments are making it harder to rally Republicans who support McConnell around a nominee they might not like.
When asked Tuesday whether he agreed with supporters who say Bevin is making it harder for the party to unify, McConnell demurred.
"I'm gonna support the Republican nominee, and I think later this week we'll find out who that is," McConnell said.
Regarding the recanvass, McConnell continued to suggest — as he did in a statement through an aide last week — that he is not ready to endorse the Republican candidate until the vote is official.
"I think all of this is yet to be determined," he said. "I have no reason to expect the party won't be unified, and we'll find out as we move forward."
Jim Weise, a former chairman of the Hardin County GOP, said he thinks the Republican Party will unify around Bevin if he is the nominee "because what's the alternative — Jack Conway?"
The senator vehemently pushed back against the suggestion that his decision to skip Saturday's Lincoln Day dinner is a sign that he's reluctant to endorse Bevin.
"If I were not the majority leader of the Senate, I could probably wait until Sunday to go back, but I'm responsible for the schedule; I'm responsible for the Sunday session," he said. "So nothing should be read into that in terms of my interest in the governor's race or any other race this fall."
The rare Sunday session was caused in large part by U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Bowling Green, whose maneuvering and opposition to an extension of the Patriot Act have left the program in doubt and McConnell scrambling to find a way to pass legislation.
In an interview with the Herald-Leader just days after his overwhelming re-election victory last November, McConnell endorsed Paul's 2016 bid for the presidency, and he said Tuesday that Paul's decision to fight the anti-terrorism bill had not led him to rethink that endorsement.
"This is not personal," McConnell said. "Rand and I have a good relationship. We just have a difference of opinion about this issue, and it's not a small issue. This is a big issue."
McConnell used the bulk of his remarks to tout his defense of a new trade agreement that he and President Barack Obama support and his effort to extend the Patriot Act.
During a question-and-answer session with the audience, one person asked McConnell what the odds are that Republicans can pick up seats to add to their slim majority in the Senate.
"Pretty slim," McConnell responded. "We have 24 Republicans up; they only have 10 Democrats up in the next cycle, so our goal is to keep the majority."
The senator said he sees pick-up opportunities in Nevada and Colorado, but other states, especially those expected to be competitive in the presidential election, will be tougher.
"Regretfully, we have an open seat in Florida because Sen. Rubio is running for president and not running for the Senate at the same time," McConnell said. "And so we've got some challenges."