Saying it was never too soon to start, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell formally announced his 2020 re-election bid in his home state Saturday and tapped the young leader of the state's House Republicans as his campaign chairman.
The 76-year-old McConnell has said for months that he intends to run for re-election in 2020. But he left little room for doubt while speaking at a GOP breakfast in far western Kentucky, the precursor to the Fancy Farm picnic that serves as the traditional starting point for the state's fall campaign season.
"I have some news to make this morning. I'm going to be running for re-election in 2020," McConnell told the crowd at Graves County Middle School, adding: "I don't like starting late."
McConnell chose Jonathan Shell, the 30-year-old majority leader of the Kentucky House of Representatives, as chairman of his campaign. Shell made national news in May when he was ousted in a Republican primary by a high school math teacher who had never run for office before. The election was seen by many as result of massive protests across the country by teachers and public workers upset with education funding, retirement benefits and low pay.
Hundreds of teachers mustered at the Fancy Farm picnic Saturday. The 138-year-old tradition in western Kentucky is known for pitting politicians of both parties onstage before a crowd of raucous hecklers who do their best to fluster those brave enough to stand at the microphone. Raising the stakes, the speeches are broadcast live on statewide television.
As McConnell spoke Saturday, hundreds of teachers in matching red T-shirts stood and turned their backs on him as they chanted, "Vote him out!"
But McConnell was steady, seeming amused by some of the reactions. Near the end of his speech, McConnell addressed the Republican side of the crowd by turning to the Democrats and saying: "Don't be afraid of these people. Stand up for America and help us make America great again."
As he readies his re-election campaign, McConnell has been embracing Trump, especially as he tours his home state. U.S. Rep. James Comer, who represents Kentucky's 1st Congressional District, said Trump has a 73 percent approval rating in his area. According to the FiveThirtyEight.com, McConnell votes with Trump in the Senate 94.7 percent of the time. Saturday, McConnell bragged he canceled the August recess so he can spend more time "promoting the Trump agenda all the way through the month of August."
A big part of that agenda is confirming judges, a role that will likely be a big part of McConnell's re-election strategy. He said his decision to block former President Barack Obama's Supreme Court nominee in the final months of his presidency "was the single most consequential decision I've made in my career." He vowed the Senate would confirm Brett Kavanaugh, the judge Trump has nominated to replace retiring Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy.
He added that if Republicans can keep control of the Senate for the rest of Trump's term "we can transform the federal judiciary."
McConnell's biggest critic Saturday was Alison Lundergan Grimes, the Democratic secretary of state who lost to McConnell in 2014. McConnell left the Fancy Farm stage before the program ended, prompting Grimes to quip "he is very busy rushing a Supreme Court vote."
"It is so sad. Like many men, he suffers from premature confirmation. And like a man, he claims it never happens to him," she said.
Democrats hoped the picnic would jump-start their efforts to regain control of a state they dominated for decades. They point to picnic no-shows this year, including Republican Gov. Matt Bevin and U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, as evidence of growing momentum that would scare them away from facing the raucous crowds of Fancy Farm.
Paul is not attending because he is on a trip to Russia. On Friday night, at the Democrats traditional bean supper, Grimes said that "many folks think that Rand Paul can't be beat."
"I don't buy that. Just ask his neighbor. He can be beaten," she said, a reference to when Paul was attacked by his neighbor last year, resulting in broken ribs.
Grimes' comment was condemned by Republicans on social media, including Doug Stafford, Paul's chief strategist.
"That's almost as sad and pathetic as her last campaign," Stafford wrote, referring to Grimes' 2014 challenge to McConnell. "Mitch beat her so bad he almost got charged with a hate crime."