Mitch McConnell expected a warm, or at least anger-free, welcome Thursday. Several police officers stood watch throughout the swanky Hotel Covington. His hosts were the Northern Kentucky and Cincinnati chambers of commerce. And it cost $65 to attend.
That didn’t deter two protesters.
While the Senate Majority Leader ticked off his legislative priorities, a woman wearing a trenchcoat and then a man wearing a sweater stood up and interrupted. They questioned the legitimacy of President Donald Trump’s election, the administration’s ties to Russia and the delay in getting a permanent fix in Congress for a retired coal miner’s health care and pension fund.
In an echo of Trump rallies during the 2016 campaign, they were escorted out by police as other audience members wearing formal business attire yelled for them to “sit down.”
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McConnell got a laugh from the audience after the second protester was escorted out of the ballroom as TV and cellphone cameras captured the exchange.
“I see we’re having multiple speakers today,” he said.
Outside on an unseasonably warm day, hundreds of protesters held signs and chanted “Where’s Mitch?” and “We want town halls!” Enough had gathered to require the closure of a street next to the hotel.
“We figured a couple would get in,” said Trey Grayson, president of the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce and a former Republican Kentucky Secretary of State. “In theory, it was an open event.”
The Q&A at the end of McConnell’s talk consisted of two pre-submitted questions on note cards read by Jill Meyer, president of the Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce.
In prior Kentucky events this week, McConnell had taken questions from audience members who stood up or lined up for their turn. Some of them were gentle, and some weren’t.
“He loves to do questions,” said Grayson, who considers McConnell a mentor.
As he had over the past couple of days, McConnell told the Covington audience that voters in Kentucky and the country had chosen a different direction in November’s election, and that those protesting outside were simply unwilling to accept it.
“It wasn’t just Kentucky,” McConnell said. “Trump actually won the election.”
Not only did Trump trounce Democrat Hillary Clinton in Kentucky 63 percent to 33 percent, but Republicans gained a huge majority in the Kentucky House of Representatives for the first time since the 1920s. They now control both chambers of the state legislature as well as the governor’s mansion.
McConnell helped engineer the Republican takeover of a state once dominated by Democrats, who now hold but two statewide offices and one U.S. House seat. But things haven’t always gone exactly his way.
Grayson was McConnell’s preferred successor for former Kentucky Republican Sen. Jim Bunning when the Hall-of-Fame pitcher from nearby Southgate retired from the Senate in 2010.
But voters chose someone else in that year’s Republican primary: Rand Paul, who rode a wave of voter discontent to a Senate victory later that fall.
Still, McConnell took solace in Trump’s victory and everything it’s delivered: A rollback of regulations, a conservative Supreme Court nominee and a “terrific” Cabinet that includes McConnell’s wife, Elaine Chao, now the secretary of transportation.
Would McConnell do any town halls where anyone could come and ask questions – and not have to pay to get in?
“It’s a good way to find out what’s on people’s minds,” said Grayson, who also served as director of the Harvard Institute of Politics.
But social media platforms now give elected officials other ways to connect with their constituents, he said.
“They know what’s going on,” Grayson said. “They hear what people say.”