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McConnell Squares Off With Rivals At Ky. Political Picnic


Over the weekend the tiny town of Fancy Farm, Kentucky was the scene of a political brawl worthy of the Hatfields and McCoys. No one was run out of town, but Mitch O'Connell, the Senate Republican leader, who is asking Kentuckians for a sixth term, did get pretty roughed up - verbally. You'd hardly guess it all began as a church picnic.

NPR's David Welna was there.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Nine tons of mutton and pork barbecue get devoured by the thousands who descend every August on the Fancy Farm Picnic, a benefit for Saint Jerome's, the local Catholic Church. But they also come for that other kind of meat - raw, tough and thoroughly political. The picnic features a two hour bout of shouting and speechmaking in an open-air shed kicked off this year by public TV host Ferrell Wellman.

FERRELL WELLMAN: So I assume everybody is ready to have the time.


WELLMAN: Are you going to be on your best behavior?


WELLMAN: That's what I thought.


WELNA: It was a crowd as divided as Congress but a good deal rowdier. To the right were Mitch McConnell supporters - many bused in by the 71-year-old senator for this formal launch of his campaign for a sixth term. To the left sat backers of Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes. She's the 34-year-old Democrat who's running neck-and-neck in recent polls with McConnell. Scattered throughout were Matt Bevin supporters. He's the wealthy Tea Party-backed businessman challenging McConnell in next spring's GOP primary. So McConnell began casting himself as the guy standing up to Barack Obama.

SENATOR MITCH MCCONNELL: You know, I've brought Kentucky's voice to Washington and the Obama crowd doesn't like it. You see, Kentucky's voice is often the voice of opposition to the Obama agenda and I'm proud of that. That's why every liberal in America, every liberal in America is out to beat us next year.

WELNA: Not once did McConnell mention either rival sitting right behind him. Instead, he cast this as a race against Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid and President Obama, who twice lost Kentucky by wide margins.

MCCONNELL: It's really quite simple. Here's the choice. Obama's Nevada yes man or a Kentuckian to run the Senate. Thanks for all you're doing. It's going to be a great campaign. We're going to have a lot of fun.

WELNA: Among those listening is Annie Zachary(ph), a registered Republican wondering how worried the Republican leader ought to be.

ANNE ZACHARY: I am very seriously thinking that if certain things align, he may not have his job.

WELNA: Next was Democratic challenger Grimes, who opened with a snub of McConnell.

ALISON GRIMES: It's not every Fancy Farm that the Republican nominee for United States Senate actually shows up, so please join me in giving a big rousing to welcome to Matt Bevin.

WELNA: While McConnell sat behind her wearing a mirthless smile, Grimes portrayed him as the culprit behind Washington's dysfunction.

GRIMES: Let's just tell it like it is. If the doctors told Senator McConnell that he had a kidney stone, he'd refuse to pass it.

WELNA: Grimes' performance left GOP state representative and McConnell ally Richard Heath fretful.

STATE REPRESENTATIVE RICHARD HEATH: Alison Grimes is a really good candidate and a really good campaigner. She'll be tough to beat. I've got to put 100 percent of my effort behind the senator and believe with all my heart that he will get reelected.

WELNA: Last to speak was 46-year-old Tea Party Republican Bevin. His supporters rang white Salvation Army bells made in a Connecticut foundry his family owns.

MATT BEVIN: The bells - the bells that have been ringing, Mitch McConnell seemed to wonder what was up with that. I saw him kind of looking around. And let me tell you something, Senator, if you haven't scurried away yet, ask not for whom the bells toll, Senator, they toll for you.

WELNA: McConnell had, in fact, already left, along with most of his supporters. Bevin, nonetheless, confronted him.

BEVIN: I don't intend to run to the right of Mitch McConnell. I don't intend to run to the left of Mitch McConnell. I intend to run straight over the top of Mitch McConnell and right into the U.S. Senate, and with your help we're going to do that.

WELNA: Long time Kentucky political analyst Al Cross says McConnell does have a huge campaign war chest, but still...

AL CROSS: Matt Bevin is a proximate threat to Mitch McConnell, the most proximate threat, because McConnell's never had to deal with a primary, never had to deal with an insurgency, never had to defend himself among Republicans, most of whom are more conservative than he is or was. He's moving to the right.

WELNA: Which may make McConnell even less inclined to bless any of the deals Congress likely will soon have to make now that he's got double trouble to deal with back home. David Welna, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Welna
David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.
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