SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Critics of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have given him a new nickname owing to his refusal to take up election security bills, Moscow Mitch. Democrats say that he is assisting Russian election meddlers. But as Kentucky Public Radio's Ryland Barton reports, the senator is not feeling much pressure from voters in his home state.
(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)
UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Moscow Mitch. Moscow Mitch. Moscow Mitch.
RYLAND BARTON, BYLINE: Sure, Democrats in Kentucky have latched onto the Moscow Mitch line just like Democrats across the country.
CHRISTINA TROSPER: My hat is an ode to Mitch McConnell and his apparent love for all things Russia.
BARTON: That's Christina Trosper. She's a teacher from rural Knox County. She's wearing a comically large Russian-style fur hat with a button on it that says Say Nyet to Moscow Mitch at a very hot political event.
TROSPER: As a lifelong Kentuckian, I think it's time that - we gave him his chance. He got in power. He got into his leadership position, and he's turned his back on the hardworking people of this state.
BARTON: McConnell was tagged with the nickname in July after he refused to take up two election security bills that passed out of the Democratic-led House of Representatives. He normally embraces derogatory epithets, like Grim Reaper and Cocaine Mitch, but he bristles at this one. Back in July, he took to the Senate floor to denounce people accusing him of cozying up to Russia, calling it modern-day McCarthyism.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
MITCH MCCONNELL: No matter how much they lie, no matter how much they bully, I will not be intimidated.
BARTON: McConnell says the country has already done enough to boost security.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
MCCONNELL: Well, there won't be votes on things that are unrelated to having a successful election in 2020. Don't buy the spin.
BARTON: A billboard has just gone up in downtown Louisville with a giant picture of McConnell's face and the message, tell Mitch McConnell stop blocking election security funding. It was rented by Stand Up America, which is spending $100,000 to pressure McConnell and a handful of vulnerable Republican senators to boost election security funding. But the progressive group is preaching to the choir in mostly liberal urban Louisville.
Out in Pikeville, in the mountains of eastern Kentucky, retired coal miner and railroad worker John Deskins says election security is important, but the Democrats are the ones who have mishandled the issue.
JOHN DESKINS: What little bit that I understand about it is that they put other implements in it to try to alter exactly what's needed.
BARTON: The bill blocked by McConnell would've required all ballots for federal elections to be backed up electronically, given states $600 million to improve their election infrastructure and required electronic voting machines to be manufactured in the United States, among other things.
DeRonda Smith is a retired teacher from Hazard. She says she also thinks election security is important, but McConnell's handling of the issue won't change her support for him.
DERONDA SMITH: I don't think it's really a driving issue. I think it's just a very big safety concern.
BARTON: McConnell was first elected to the Senate in 1984 and will try to win his seventh term in office next year. Over the course of his tenure, Kentucky has turned from a solidly Democratic-voting state to a Republican one. And local Republican voters say the change came because they no longer related with Democrats at the federal level.
JIM HAMILTON: And when Trump decided to run, I'm not a Democrat anymore. I'm a Republican.
BARTON: Pikeville resident Jim Hamilton says he was a Democrat for 47 years.
HAMILTON: I couldn't stand any more of this Obama thing. Obama came here to eastern Kentucky. He shut our coal mines down.
BARTON: McConnell's biggest pressure points might come from his Republican colleagues in the Senate, some of whom are facing tough reelections. But the pressure is unlikely to mount in his home state, which is largely rural, increasingly Republican and very, very supportive of President Trump.
For NPR News, I'm Ryland Barton in Pikeville, Ky.
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