Mitch McConnell expected the protesters outside the Republican-friendly luncheon in heavily Republican Anderson County. He didn’t expect what he found inside the American Legion hall.
The questions from the $10-a-plate crowd, which heard the Senate Majority Leader offer his usual defense of the Trump administration and the GOP-led Senate, were not gentle.
At one point, a frustrated audience member implored him: “Answer the question Mitch!” after he offered a curt answer to a woman asking about lost coal jobs in eastern Kentucky.
And a he began leaving the event, escorted by state and local law enforcement, a few in the crowd booed. Someone shouted “Do your job.”
Al Cross, the director of the Institute for Rural Journalism at the University of Kentucky and a veteran political reporter, said it’s unusual for McConnell to be put in that kind of position at in-state events.
“Typically, when he goes out and does these town halls, they’re not widely announced,” he said.
Arriving about noon, the Kentucky Republican was greeted with a standing ovation before he was introduced by local elected officials. McConnell gave the standard rundown of the Senate’s agenda. He discussed how the Senate needed to approve the rest of President Donald Trump’s Cabinet nominees, enact a comprehensive tax overhaul and complete the repeal of the Affordable Care Act.
He noted the presence of the protesters outside.
“They don’t share my agenda,” he said, but added “I respect their right to be there.”
After all, McConnell noted, “When you win the election, you get to make the policy.”
You also get to defend it. When it came time for questions, a man stood up in the back of the room and asked McConnell a question he may not have expected from the otherwise low-key crowd.
“Do you favor impeachment of President Trump for killing civilians in Yemen?” the man asked, referring to a recent U.S. raid in the country in which civilians and a Navy SEAL died. The man was not identified.
McConnell didn’t respond.
Next, a woman asked McConnell to explain his often-repeated position that former President Barack Obama’s environmental regulations had decimated the coal industry in eastern Kentucky.
Demand for coal has been dampened by a variety of factors in recent years, including an abundance of cheap natural gas produced from hydraulic fracturing and tougher federal regulations on coal-fired power plants.
“If you can answer that, I will sit down and shut up like Elizabeth Warren,” the woman said, referring to the Massachusetts Democrat McConnell rebuked during a Senate debate over the confirmation of Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
“I hope you feel better,” McConnell said.
“Answer the question, Mitch!” someone else yelled.
Afterward, the woman, Rose Mudd Perkins of Georgetown, Kentucky, said she’d lost a son to a heroin overdose four years ago and wanted a better future for her grandson, who’s in fifth grade.
She said she worked nonstop to prevent Trump from becoming president last year in a state he won with 63 percent of the vote. However, she also said her discontent wasn’t limited to Republicans, who now control both houses of the Kentucky legislature, the governor’s mansion, both U.S. Senate seats and five of the six House districts.
“I may start a new party,” she said. “The Democrats have failed us. The national party and the state party.”
Historically, the state was dominated by Democrats. But its conservative, rural voters, like those in Anderson County, have gradually shifted Republican.
“I’d say it’s a fairly typical Kentucky county,” Cross said.
Not everyone who wanted to ask McConnell a question got a chance. As he began leaving the event, escorted by state and local law enforcement, a few in the crowd booed. Someone shouted “Do your job!”
Courtney Walker, also of Georgetown, came with her 14-month-old daughter, Emilene, to ask McConnell about Republican plans to repeal and replace Obama’s health care law.
Walker said the law had enabled her to get the care she needed during her pregnancy and after her daughter’s birth.
Kentucky’s implementation of the health-care law had been widely praised as one of the most successful in the nation, but Republicans campaigned last year on a promise to scrap it and start over. And they won big.
Trump carried Anderson County by a margin of 72 percent to 23 percent. Democrat Hillary Clinton only carried two Kentucky counties, home to the state’s two largest cities, Louisville and Lexington.
Still, even in Lawrenceburg, population 11,000, not everyone was pleased with those results.
“People in Kentucky are very pissed,” Walker said.
CLARIFICATION: An earlier version of this story did not make sufficiently clear that McConnell was describing what the Senate needed to accomplish, not what it had accomplished.