Why Kentucky might 'Ditch Mitch'

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell speaks with reporters following the weekly policy luncheon for Senate Democrats in Washington DC 8 April 2014

The latest battle in the Republican civil war is the campaign to get rid of one of the longest serving, most prominent conservatives in US politics.

I'm here at the Ronald Reagan Day Diner at Kentucky's Russell County middle school to find out why some want to "Ditch Mitch" - Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the Senate.

Amid the oval and rectangular tables, some draped with T-shirts and banners, a 16-year-old girl takes to the stage. As they tuck into the country buffet of chicken, ham, green beans and cornbread (no alcohol, this is a dry county) she intones:

"Yes, Mr Obama, there are two Americas - not the have and the have not's, but the wills and the won'ts".

The 300 or so Republicans here like the sentiment - President Barack Obama has built an army of the feckless with welfare cheques - and it is hard for honest, decent, hardworking folk to beat him at the ballot box.

It is what Mitt Romney said in the 2012 election with his remarks about 47% of Americans. That caused outrage on the left. It is the accepted wisdom here.

'Hungry to be heard'

The diatribe is just the warm-up act at the dinner. But this evening is not just about self-congratulation - the corridor is lined with Republicans fighting it out for the plum elected jobs in the state and in the local area.

In this county, a Republican is going to win every one of them - it is just a question of which Republican.

But the prize, which will be a real contest with the Democrats, is for Kentucky US senator. The first contest is again, an internal one.

But Mitch is missing - a factotum reads a letter of apology, and a video is played.

His Tea Party challenger Matt Bevin is very much present, shaking every hand. His pitch stresses his essential virtues - conservative, Christian, father, military veteran and entrepreneur.

Image caption Tea Party challenger Matt Bevin hopes conservative dismay with Mitch McConnell will propel him to a Senate seat

"What people are hungry for is to be heard," he tells me.

"They do not feel represented by Mitch McConnell, or career politicians in general. He's been there too long - this is not Washington DC, this is Kentucky, this is where the real people live."

He says those he calls the "crusty curmudgeons of Congress" are too willing to do bad deals and Mr McConnell is among them.

"When one capitulates... in bad governance, that's not something to be applauded."

"People in America are fed up with the levels of debt - Mitch McConnell was the fellow who broke the back of any effort by conservatives to instill any sense of fiscal responsibility into our government.

"The people out here in Kentucky don't applaud that. We resent that."

Not everyone agrees. Even before I get into the dinner I am greeted by a large bearded gentleman who proffers a bumper sticker for "Team Mitch".

He says the 30-year senator is a pragmatic politician and doesn't think much of the Tea Party criticism.

"They've never been married."

I laugh and say I think I understand - but ask if he'd like to spell it out.

He says that a fellow who's married compromises every day. If he doesn't, he's not going to stay married. He'll end up with half his stuff and no wife. If he compromises, he can have all his stuff and a wife. That's the danger for the Republican party, he tells me.

The conventional wisdom is that most of Kentucky's Republicans will feel the same way and while Matt can shake all the hands he wants, he won't win.

There's a strong mood in Washington that after last year's shut down and gridlock, the Tea Party's day is done, the establishment are standing up to them and fighting back. That last part is certainly true.

But former Congressman Steve LaTourette worries that simply reflecting back the fury and frustration out here could lose the Republicans the chance of real power - and he's spearheading the fight back, working through the Main Street Partnership.

He says his party is at a crossroads - it must become more moderate and inclusive to have a chance of getting a Republican inside the White House in 2016.

"Our choice is we can become the permanent minority and never elect another president of the United States or we can pivot and resonate with the electorate," Mr LaTourette says.

"On the economic message we'd beat the pants off the Democrats, but when we begin to get into their bedrooms, their lives, their eyes glaze over. They think 'all the Dems can to do is take money out of my wallet, you want to control my life'."

As a former congressman he will know the electorate, but one of the reason I wanted to come here, is that I think many Washington-based commenters are missing something.

They tend to dismiss vocal Tea Party politicians as extremists - when they just reflect what a slice of the population take as axiomatic.

Flea market woes

That's why I do a swift U-turn and head off the highway when I spot a big sign saying "The most awesome flea market in the world".

One stall holder, gun holstered at his hip, pulls up his jeans to show me a war-wound from Iraq. Out of the Army, he's now selling knick-knacks from butter knives to old bottles. One of the few things not on offer here is sympathy for the senator.

"Mitch? Get rid of him! I don't like him and I don't like what he stands for," he says, so I ask him what Mitch stands for.

"Nothing." What do you stand for? "Freedom".

He goes on to say he fought for his country but Mr McConnell hasn't fought for Kentucky. He claims there's too much immigration and "the country is billions in debt because of it".

"China pretty much owns us now - well it's true, everything here pretty much is made in China," he says, sweeping his hand across the stall. It's true - the rows of leather belts with big Western buckles are all made in China.

At a gun stall, I tell the owner that as a Brit it is still weird to see guns on sale so casually.

"I feel sorry for you," he says, adding guns are the guarantee of freedom. He despairs of "what is happening to America".

And he does blame Mitch McConnell for compromising. "Mitch is a dinosaur. We need somebody saying 'No, we are not doing a deal.'"

A customer joins in saying that he has just about given up - Americans will soon be living in grass huts, competing with slave labour.

The customer gets half what he used to earn, but at least he still gets up to work, he says, unlike many people: "The American dream nowadays is 'Sit on your ass and do nothing.'"

No-one I talk to disagrees with these sort of sentiments. As I walk back to the car park, I reflect that these are the complaints I hear again and again, immigration and guns, welfare cheats and China.

Some of it is true. The impact of globalisation on manufacturing jobs, for instance. Some of it, like the emphasis on the impact of welfare on debt, is far more contestable. Much of what is called "entitlements" here is made up of public pensions and healthcare for the retired.

But in some ways it is the perception that matters. Out here, few would question the sort of statements and values that get the Tea Party mocked in what the right loves to call "the lamestream media".

It worries Steve LaTourette.

"We can count on the votes of 57-year-old angry white men who live below the Mason-Dixon line. We'll probably get 80% of them."

Image caption Republicans may be pushing back but the mood that inspired the Tea Party is not going away

But he says they are not getting the votes of African-Americans, Hispanics and women.

"When some of these candidates start talking about how precious life is when a woman has been raped, that really doesn't help our cause."

The Kentucky establishment is confident Mitch McConnell will win. It is more than possible that even if the people I spoke to at the flea market are registered Republicans, they may not bother to vote in a primary election.

But if the day of large Tea Party meetings and vocal protests outside the US Capitol are past, the mood it represents is far from over.

On Tuesday, I'll be in Texas looking at the Tea Party, immigration and life on the range.

Listen to Mark's radio documentary: The Party of 'No'on Radio Four at 20:00 BST (15:00 ET) on 29 April.

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