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State GOP Dinner Brings Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Breaking News To Lexington

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AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley
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White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders addresses the audience during the Republican Party's Annual Lincoln Dinner, Saturday, Aug. 25, 2018, in Lexington, Ky.

White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders may have headlined Kentucky Republicans' annual Lincoln Dinner Saturday, but news of the death of the U.S. Senate's long-serving "maverick" and a fresh gubernatorial campaign announcement may have stolen the spotlight. 

"You'll have to forgive me," Sanders opened her remarks. "I'm not used to going into crowds where they're excited to see me." 

With that bit of self-deprecating humor, the frequent target of late night comedians began her talk in front of a who's who of state GOP leaders and newsmakers, from Senate President Robert Stivers to Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis. The Trump spokesperson praised Kentucky's decisive shift to the right in 2016, in a speech peppered with personal stories and pitches for 6th District Republican incumbent Andy Barr – a candidate whose race, the crowd was reminded, could decide whether Democrats take control of the House this fall. 

"By being in this room tonight, I'm encouraged and I'm reminded of the incredible people across this country who are engaged and working hard to make sure the booming economy continues, the remaking of the judiciary isn't obstructed, and that our world is safer for our kids," she said. 

Absent from the address was any mention of the previous week’s legal drama surrounding the president. Instead, Sanders concentrated on the party’s wins on the state and national level.  

But across the street in Triangle Park, around 200 protesters had a different message.

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Credit Josh James / WUKY
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WUKY
Protester McKayla Weaver holds a bullhorn at the "Kentucky For Decency Rally" held in Triangle Park on August 25, 2018.

'How Can She Live With Herself?' 

Before the official start of the scheduled protest, demonstrators were already clustering along the edge of the park, hoping for a chance to voice their displeasure with the current direction of the state and the country.  

"Shame on you! Shame on you!" demonstrators chanted in unison to periodic honks from the passing downtown traffic. 

Julie Martinez was with the Bluegrass Activist Alliance, one of the groups involved in organizing the event.

"So we just wanted to come out today and make sure that people undertsand that in Lexington we believe in decency, and we believe that that doesn't include lying, which is what we hear from the press secretary continuously," she told WUKY. 

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Credit Josh James / WUKY
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WUKY
Demonstrators line one side of Triangle Park ahead of the Kentucky Republican Party's annual Lincoln Dinner in Lexington on August 25, 2018.

Martinez said the message of the protest is that “people matter and the truth matters.”

Another organizer manning the bullhorn, McKayla Weaver, said if given the chance to ask Sanders a question, it would be: "How can she live with herself every day when there's people who are hurting from the policies that she and the Trump administration support?" 

But Sanders' appearance was only the first of several news item to come out of the state GOP's largest fundraiser of the year. 

Bevin Is Back For Round Two

Putting months of speculation to rest, first-term Republican Governor Bevin tagged his Lincoln Dinner speech with a brief coda that grabbed everyone’s attention.

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"I want to, in all seriousness, clean up one other thing," he said. "You bet I'm running again." 

The governor's growing profile on the national stage, and regular contacts with the Trump administration, had led some political observers to wonder whether he might be laying the foundation for a run for higher office. Saturday, the governor said he wants to keep the state’s economic momentum going.

"There was not a chance that I was going to walk away and leave the seeds that we've put in the ground to be trampled on or intentionally dug up by any kind of people who might chose to follow behind," he told reporters. 

The governor stopped short, however, of committing to a running mate. Bevin’s lieutenant governor, Jenean Hampton, is the first African-American to be elected to statewide office in Kentucky.  

Asked about the potential stable of Democratic candidates for his post, Bevin said not one of them is “even remotely worthy of carrying the torch for the people of Kentucky.”

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Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., speaks to the gathering of party supporters during the Republican party's Annual Lincoln Dinner, Saturday, Aug. 25, 2018, in Lexington, Ky. During the dinner, Sen. McConnell announced the passing of Sen. John McCain.

A Moment Of Silence

News of the passing of Arizona Senator John McCain also broke during the fundraising dinner, and Senator Mitch McConnell delivered the headline to a startled audience.

The senator interrupted his remarks to tell the room brimming with Republican faithful that McCain – who announced he was discontinuing treatment for brain cancer only the day before – had died at age 81.

"Sadly I must tell you that Senator McCain passed away tonight," McConnell said to audible gasps. "And I think it appropriate for this American hero for us to take a moment of silence in memory of his outstanding life." 

Later, McConnell would remember his friend as a patriot who would be missed in the halls of the Senate.

"He was also a facinating personality," the majority leader added. "He would occasionally be in a bad place with various members, including myself, and when that would blow over it was like nothing ever happened." 

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McCain had been absent from the Senate since December. His replacement will be chosen by the Republican governor of Arizona and serve until 2020.