Republicans should rally around Matt Bevin in this year's race for governor, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Thursday as he tried to put to rest questions about how solidly he supports his onetime rival.
"Let me just say to people who are friends and allies of mine: We need to get behind Matt Bevin," McConnell said. "It serves no purpose whatsoever in pursuing the things we believe in to have a Democratic governor."
In an interview with the Herald-Leader, McConnell said he will attend the annual Fancy Farm picnic this year to stump for Bevin and the rest of the Republican slate, and that he thinks Bevin is the right candidate on issues important to the state, including union membership laws, prevailing-wage laws and charter schools.
"You don't have to be in love with the guy to know that there's a huge difference on everything that I mentioned between Matt Bevin and Jack Conway," McConnell said. "So I think we need to let bygones be bygones and get together and try to change Kentucky."
In remarks earlier in the day to a Commerce Lexington luncheon, McConnell appeared to use the recent bruising GOP primary for governor as a cautionary tale for his party's 2016 presidential candidates.
Bevin squeaked out a victory in the race after Agriculture Commissioner James Comer and Louisville businessman Hal Heiner became embroiled in a nasty fight over allegations that Comer physically abused his college girlfriend in the early 1990s.
The message, McConnell said, is to be careful trying to tear down one opponent in a multi-candidate race, because you might end up helping one of your other opponents.
"My advice to the presidentials, ... is engage in that with caution," he told the Herald-Leader. "Better, it seems to me, in a crowded field to pick your lane and try to advocate your way through it, because you get into a spirited contest and people don't like it, they've got multiple different ways they can react to that.
"I said to both Jamie and Hal, way before this incident developed a couple of weeks before the primary, 'You guys get into a serious back-and-forth, and you may lose.' And that's exactly what happened."
The senator reaffirmed his support in next year's contest for U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, whose campaign has struggled to get traction since Paul announced in April.
When asked at the luncheon about his preferred candidate in the presidential race, McConnell repeated what he first told the Herald-Leader last November: "Obviously, I'm going to support my home-state colleague, Rand Paul."
Paul and McConnell famously broke over the issue of reauthorizing the Patriot Act earlier this year, and Paul derailed McConnell's efforts to extend the anti-terrorism legislation.
Paul's maneuvering at the last minute appeared to cause heartburn for Senate leadership, but McConnell said he "wasn't surprised that (Paul) objected to us doing what we were doing."
"He and I were diametrically opposed on that issue," McConnell said. "We both ended up voting against the so-called Freedom Bill. I thought it didn't go far enough, and he thought it went too far."
When asked whether disagreement on national security, an issue key to the presidency, had given McConnell pause in his decision to support Paul, McConnell said he doesn't "expect to be in total agreement with anybody."
"And if he were to become president, I'd try to change his mind," McConnell said.