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.

US Senate candidate Matt Bevin, speaks to a gathering at FreePAC Kentucky in Louisville, Kentucky 5 April 2014 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."

Start Quote

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”

End Quote Steve LaTourette Former Republican congressman

"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.

Find out more

  • Mark's documentary, The Party of No, is on BBC Radio 4 at 20:00 BST (15:00 ET) on Tuesday, 29 April

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".

Mitch McConnell said in December 2012 Republicans would not "write a blank cheque" to Democrats to avert the fiscal cliff

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."

Tea Party backers in Washington (13 October 2013) 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.

Mark Mardell, North America editor Article written by Mark Mardell Mark Mardell North America editor

More on This Story

Related Stories


This entry is now closed for comments

Jump to comments pagination
  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    Its not just in Kentucky that people feel this way (although there is a larger amount of Americans in Kentucky than some other states who are mostly immigrants which is why this Americanism is more pronounced)

    Family and friends from across the USA have all told me same thing- that America is under attack by rich elitists from within

    Most all Americans are alarmed and for good reason

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    Don't worry Chris A, we will never run out of rednecks. Tradenis, when my father lived in KY they used to say "thank God for Arkansas" because KY was 49th in every positive and second in every negative statistic. To be fair to both of them they can't compete with Mississippi anymore or sometimes Alabama. Ignorance, unemployment and hatred: there's a lot of room at the bottom.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    9. The power brokers in Kentucky own horse farm/breeding operations, and the remnants of the Gaylord dynasty are still very connected politically so McConnell has to face that rabid political movement, FreedomWorks and Koch brothers PAC's: http://www.freedomworksforamerica.org/candidate/matt-bevin & http://www.bailoutbevin.com/?gclid=CO7D8tXahb4CFa9cMgodBioAyw

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    "I reflect that these are the complaints I hear again and again, immigration and guns, welfare cheats and China"

    These man's statements are entirely legitimate
    and it is exactly what is wrong with America

    But with Obama at the helm, there is no hope

    That is why so much hope rests with the Republican lawmakers because they are the only ones willing to oppose Obama

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    As a rural Kentuckian I will be voting for Matt Bevin. Mitch is a career politician that has never held a private sector job, yet he is the 10th wealthiest person in the US Senate. He has been there for 30 years and helped to preside over our country as it has continued it's slide downhill. What is the definition of insanity? Doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    So these are the real people of Kentucky? The real people of Kentucky, as everybody knows, have rotting teeth. They live in a state which after West Virginia is the most miserable to live in. They are strutting on top of a heap of manure.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    There's a lot of frustration in this world; it's understandable and it's not apt to end anytime soon. From here, the T-party seems to be going Sceptered Isles and Continental, with investors and merchants dragged up as workers instead of Indians. Gov'ts are overthrown about as easily as a lit match lights straw and the US spends over $100 billion a year on foreign and domestic spy operations...hmm

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    The comment about being married sums up exactly what is wrong with the Tea Party, well said that man.

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    Just what America needs, another of the ilk of Bevan: "Matt Bevin... his essential virtues - conservative, Christian, father, military veteran and entrepreneur." Congressman Michael Grimm, with similar credentials to Bevin, was indicted yesterday: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-27195257 The rednecks just keep on coming!

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    "No we are not doing a deal". Then take your toys and go home. Lincoln did deals, so did FDR. Its how a two party system works. It's why nothing significant or effective has been done for the last 6years. This band of cry babies won't conduct routine government business without turning everything into a you know what contest. Hooray for the moderates and pragmatists like Eisenhower and LBJ.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.


  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    Even Mitt Romney repudiated his 47% remark, on Fox News no less. My dad grew up in rural KY and couldn't wait to get out. What amazes me isn't that these fools vote against their self interest, it's that they are so confident they are right and so angry. No wonder Republicans don't want to fix the educational system. It's were they got the 47% of votes who actually wound up voting for Romney.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    Hey, let them. If Kentucky Republicans want to throw away a Senate seat by nominating an extremist with an extremist agenda, I for one can't wait to see it happen.

    The GOP has forgotten that politics is the art of compromise. Just standing in one place and screaming "NO!" isn't a policy position, it's a suicide note.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    One can always hope.


Page 3 of 3



  • Nigel Farage (left) and Douglas CarswellWho's next?

    The Tory MPs being tipped to follow Carswell to UKIP

  • A painting of the White House on fire by Tom FreemanFinders keepers

    The odd objects looted by the British from Washington in 1814

  • President Barack Obama pauses during a press conference on 28 August.'No strategy'

    Obama's gaffe on Islamic State reveals political truth

  • Chris and Regina Catrambone with their daughter Maria LuisaSOS

    The millionaires who rescue people at sea

  • Plane7 days quiz

    What unusual offence got a Frenchman thrown off a plane?

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.