Sen. McConnell Reaches Out To Tea Party Supporters

Here are two absolutes about politics in Kentucky: The state is reliably Republican, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is a political heavyweight in his home state. Tuesday, he made only his second appearance at a Tea Party event. Since some of McConnell's hand-picked candidates have been beaten easily in recent elections, he's reaching out to his entire party. Phillip Bailey reports from member station WFPL in Louisville.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

In Kentucky yesterday, there was another sign of Tea Party clout. Mitch McConnell - minority leader in the U.S. Senate, and Kentucky's most powerful politician - turned up at his first-ever Tea Party rally. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: This was not McConnell's first Tea Party rally. He participated in a Tea Party event in 2010.] This year, Tea Party candidates have scored upsets in Republican primaries in Missouri, Texas and Indiana. That's where longtime Senator Richard Lugar lost.

In Kentucky, some believe Mitch McConnell fears his own Tea Party primary challenge, in coming years. Phillip Bailey, of member station WFPL, has the report.

PHILLIP BAILEY, BYLINE: Even before Mitch McConnell got a chance to speak at the Kentucky Capitol, about a dozen protesters were out in force.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Hey, hey, ho, ho, Mitch McConnell's got to go.

BAILEY: McConnell is as powerful in Kentucky, as he is in Washington. But he's had to make nice with the new junior senator, Rand Paul, who was elected with strong Tea Party support two years ago - a candidate McConnell didn't back.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL: Thank you very much. Thank you very much. And thank you for sending Rand Paul to the Senate.

BAILEY: Despite Tea Party critics, McConnell joined with Paul at the rally, to denounce President Obama's health-care law, while praising his colleague's climb up the political ladder.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

MCCONNELL: I'm so grateful that you all helped get him elected in 2010. He's a national leader, making a difference for Kentucky and America. And thank you for your service, Rand Paul.

BAILEY: Kentucky does have a Democratic governor. But the state is solidly Republican. So this rally may be more about McConnell's re-election bid in 2014, than the presidential race. Some Tea Party activists see McConnell for what he's worth: a lawmaker who has accrued three decades of political power. That faction wants to influence the Senate's ranking Republican. Others want McConnell ousted from office, to clean up Washington and cut government spending.

Frank Harris was among those in the crowd. He says he's a former Republican who is now a Libertarian. He recalls McConnell's initial opposition to Paul's candidacy, and believes McConnell's appearance at the rally is a sign the Tea Party movement is being co-opted.

FRANK HARRIS: As far as I'm concerned, bringing Mitch in just shows that Mitch is afraid. He finally has to acknowledge the power, and the strength, of the Tea Party Movement.

BAILEY: Still, McConnell received a warm reception, and polite applause, from the Tea Party crowd. Louisville resident Jim Coyle MC'd the event. He admits he doesn't agree with McConnell on much but will back him, anyway.

JIM COYLE: We have put out invitations to Senator McConnell before. And he hasn't responded - and he hasn't replied. But he did decide to come work with us on this one, so I'll take him at his word. And we'll work on Obamacare, one step at a time.

BAILEY: Tea Party activists who remain opposed to McConnell cite his inability to block the health-care law. Others highlight his votes backing the bank bailout, the Patriot Act; as well as bringing home hundreds of millions of dollars of federal spending. Jasmine Farrier teaches political science at the University of Louisville. She says that's been McConnell's chief argument for re-election, for decades.

JASMINE FERRIER: At his last re-election, he touted his experience. And he implied that no matter what happened for the White House race, he was going to be the most important Republican in the U.S. Congress. In other words, McConnell's theme in 2008 - his last re-election - was that being powerful serves the interests of the citizens of the commonwealth.

BAILEY: It's those years of experience that make some Tea Party advocates wary. For activists like Frank Harris, he believes McConnell needs a primary challenger.

HARRIS: They'll have to have some money. You know, Mitch has $6 million. I think we could beat Mitch with $2 million.

BAILEY: But Mitch McConnell's re-election is in 2014. There's a bigger, more important presidential election this November that ultimately, will help shape that race.

For NPR News, I'm Phillip Bailey in Louisville.

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Correction Aug. 23, 2012

A previous Web introduction to this story, as does the audio version, incorrectly said that Mitch McConnell's appearance at a Tea Party rally was a first. McConnell had actually appeared at another Tea Party event in 2010.

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