Politics & Government

At statewide dinner, Bevin tries to answer unity questions with humor

Matt Bevin on primary election night 2015.
Matt Bevin on primary election night 2015. AP

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was not in the audience, but that didn't stop his former rival and GOP gubernatorial nominee Matt Bevin from trying to put tensions between him and McConnell to bed.

At the statewide Republican Party Lincoln Day dinner, Bevin, fresh off an 83-vote win over James Comer, tried to make light of the bad blood between him and McConnell, the majority leader whom Bevin tried to defeat last year and refused to endorse after the primary.

Pausing in his speech, Bevin showed a video of him going to great lengths to support McConnell, including waking up in a McConnell T-shirt, patting the many McConnell bumper stickers on the back of his car and even getting a "Team Mitch" tattoo on his arm.

The ad closed with Bevin on the phone with McConnell, who was not pictured in the video, saying: "No, you hang up. No, you hang up."

From the podium, Bevin and a host of Republican officials pledged that they would be unified for the fall election against Democrat Jack Conway, but in hushed tones and whispers, a number of attendees at the dinner continued to express regret and concern that Bevin has emerged as the party's standard-bearer.

The video, which brought laughs from all corners of the room, seemed to ease some concerns about Bevin's ability or willingness to reach out to McConnell supporters.

State Sen. Damon Thayer, a McConnell loyalist and Comer supporter, praised the video, calling it "a good way to break the ice."

McConnell was not at the dinner, having flown back to Washington to prepare for a rare Sunday Senate session, forced by Kentucky junior U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, to address the expiration of the Patriot Act.

But Terry Carmack, a top McConnell aide, read a letter from the senator, notable for its lukewarm endorsement of Bevin, who was mentioned only along with the rest of the Republican slate of candidates.

"We must be united and elect all of these Republicans to office in November 2015," McConnell's letter said.

Paul, who has quite a bit of experience when it comes to being at odds with McConnell, spoke before Bevin and offered some advice, joking that he and McConnell "haven't had to go to counseling yet."

Paul said his advice was that "it's a growing experience."

"You grow together," Paul said, promising to do "anything humanly possible" to get Bevin elected.

While Bevin devoted much of his remarks to a plea for Republican unity, he and other speakers largely focused on Conway's positions on the issues, seemingly trying to unite the party behind shared contempt for Conway's stances.

State House Minority Leader Jeff Hoover, a close ally of Comer, and Senate president Robert Stivers, who warned Bevin against running against McConnell last year, both spoke, pledging support and loyalty to Bevin.

"The state Senate is firmly behind our nominee to become the next governor of the state of Kentucky," Stivers said.

After the majority of Bevin's primary funds came from his own pocket and other Republican candidates had exhausted their funds in primaries of their own, emcee and U.S. Rep. Brett Guthrie announced that he has been tasked with heading up fundraising as chairman of the governor's trust, asking the audience to kick in some money to the GOP fall effort.

And while all parties played nice Saturday night, the real question facing Bevin is whether big-time Republican donors, who have never embraced the candidate, will write him checks for the fall campaign.

"We need to reload," Guthrie said. "Our candidates absolutely need to reload."

Bevin did heap praise on his rivals for the Republican nomination "who ran races of great integrity in large measure," singling out Comer for being "a class act from beginning to end."

None of Bevin's rivals for the nomination — Comer, Hal Heiner or Will T. Scott — were spotted at the dinner.

Turning to the rest of the room and some lingering hurt feelings, Bevin made what looked like an earnest plea for everyone to rally around him.

"I humbly ask you at this time to please get on board with us," Bevin said.

In closing, Bevin joked that there were only two ways the party could proceed: "The right way, and the Conway."