By BRUCE SCHREINER
MAYFIELD, Ky. (AP) — U.S. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell received a rousing welcome from the party faithful Saturday at a high-profile home-state political gathering amid renewed scrutiny of his health after the 81-year-old lawmaker froze up midsentence during a recent Capitol Hill news conference.
“This is my 28th Fancy Farm, and I want to assure you it’s not my last,” McConnell said at the top of his breakfast speech before the annual picnic that is the traditional jumping off point for the fall campaign season in Kentucky. It was his only reference, however vague, to his health.
McConnell, who is widely regarded as the main architect of the GOP’s rise to power in Kentucky, arrived to a prolonged standing ovation and promoted the candidacy of a protege running for governor this year.
Later at the Fancy Farm picnic, McConnell made a pitch for the GOP statewide ticket in November, which is led by Daniel Cameron, a former McConnell staffer who is the party’s nominee for governor. McConnell slammed Democratic policies from Washington to Kentucky. He bemoaned high inflation pinching family budgets and Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear’s restrictions during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
McConnell has been an annual fixture on the picnic stage in the tiny community of Fancy Farm, where he long has relished jousting with Democrats. Democrats in the crowd on Saturday greeted McConnell with cascades of boos and chanted “retire.”
McConnell’s health has drawn increased attention since he briefly left his own news conference in Washington on July 26 after stopping his remarks midsentence and staring off into space for several seconds. GOP colleagues standing behind him grabbed his elbows and escorted him back to his office. When he returned to answer questions, McConnell said he was “fine.” Asked if he is still able to do his job, he said, “Yeah.”
McConnell was out of the Senate for almost six weeks earlier this year after falling and hitting his head after a dinner event at a Washington hotel. He was hospitalized for several days, and his office later said he suffered a concussion and fractured a rib. His speech has sounded more halting in recent weeks, prompting questions among some of his colleagues about his health.
He has said he plans to serve his full term as Republican leader — he was elected to a two-year term in January and would be up for reelection to that post again after the 2024 elections. McConnell was first elected to the Senate in 1984 and has been the Republican leader since 2007. He would face reelection to the Senate in 2026.
At the breakfast event Saturday, McConnell did not delve into national issues or comment on former President Donald Trump’s legal entanglements, and he did not meet with reporters afterward. In his nine-minute speech. McConnell accused Democrats of having “turned their backs on rural America.”
McConnell also praised Cameron, the state’s attorney general who is challenging Beshear in one of the nation’s most closely watched elections this year. McConnell said he first met Cameron when Cameron was a student at the University of Louisville. Cameron went on to serve on McConnell’s staff as legal counsel.
“I’ve watched him over the years,” McConnell said. “And now you have. And you’ve seen his leadership skills, his ability to rally people together.”
A rift between Trump and McConnell has reverberated in Kentucky, where both men are prolific vote-getters. The split grew after the senator publicly refuted Trump’s claims that the 2020 presidential election was stolen, ending an uneasy partnership that had helped conservatives establish a firm majority on the Supreme Court.
McConnell has been mostly silent since then and has been loath to comment on any of the indictments of Trump this year. The two have found common cause again in the candidacy of Cameron, who was the beneficiary of Trump’s endorsement during the hard-fought Republican primary for governor.