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State GOP leaders praise McConnell, ‘a voice for Kentucky’

Senator Mitch McConnell and his wife Elaine Chao at Fancy Farm.
Derek Operle
/
WKMS
Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and his wife Elaine Chao at Fancy Farm.

After Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell announced that he would step down from Senate leadership in November, GOP legislative leaders praised his legacy of building his party’s power and delivering federal funding back home in Kentucky.

Republican legislative leaders in Frankfort reacted to Sen. Mitch McConnell’s plans to step down from party leadership by showering him with praise — crediting him with building the power of the Republican Party in Kentucky and delivering major federal appropriations back home.

“He is one of the most consequential Kentuckians in the history of the Commonwealth, right up there with people like Henry Clay,” said Senate Majority Floor Leader Damon Thayer of Georgetown. “And we will never be represented by someone as powerful as Mitch McConnell in the United States Senate.”

McConnell, the Republican senate minority leader, announced on the chamber floor Wednesday he plans to step down from his leadership role in November while pledging to complete his term ending in January 2027.

Republican Senate President Robert Stivers of Manchester was among those briefed about McConnell’s decision slightly before it was announced, telling reporters Kentucky won’t have the same type of influence in the U.S. Senate without McConnell in that role.

Despite his recent health problems — and an ongoing war of words against him and his wife Elaine Chao from former Republican President Donald Trump — some GOP legislative leaders expressed surprise at the announcement.

Part of that surprise stemmed from the fact that GOP legislators hosted a campaign fundraiser last week for McConnell, who would be up for reelection in 2026 but hasn’t made a decision on whether or not he will run.

“I do not believe that this announcement today is any indication of what his future plans may be,” Stivers said. “Because some of our Senate members and the speaker of the House hosted a small fundraiser for him for the 2026 election.”

Thayer also discounted speculation that McConnell’s announcement means he won’t run for reelection, adding that McConnell will continue to wield influence in the Senate.

“Even though this part of Mitch McConnell's political career will be over in November — that of being the Republican leader — I don't think the last chapter in Mitch McConnell's political life has yet to be written,” Thayer said. “More to come, I predict.”

Republican House Speaker David Osborne said he was “a little melancholy” about McConnell’s decision, as “it's a bad thing for Kentucky.”

“He's been so instrumental in helping Kentucky punch above its weight,” Osborne said. “He's the only one of the four leaders that doesn't reside on the coast, so he's been a voice for Kentucky in the heartland.”

The GOP legislative leaders all praised McConnell’s ability to bring federal appropriations back home, citing the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill he championed that will fund the Brent Spence Bridge expansion in northern Kentucky. McConnell was the only GOP member of Kentucky’s congressional delegation to vote for the bill.

They also agreed a key part of McConnell’s legacy is reshaping the federal courts with conservative judges during the Trump administration, especially the U.S. Supreme Court.

“If it weren't for Mitch McConnell, we would still have a liberal majority on the United States Supreme Court,” Thayer said. “Instead, we have a conservative majority. And I think you have to give him much of the credit.”

Since his upset Senate victory in 1984 — when Democrats dominated Kentucky politics — McConnell has masterminded his party’s takeover of the state, where Republicans now hold all but one congressional seat, a dominant supermajority in both chambers of the Kentucky General Assembly and all but one of the statewide constitutional offices.

Asked about McConnell’s announcement Wednesday, Kentucky’s Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear thanked McConnell for his years of service to the state and country.

“His willingness to serve and serve for how long he has in a position of leadership is pretty special,” Beshear said. “And we just want to say thank you.”

McConnell is not only the longest-serving senator in Kentucky history, but became the longest-serving party leader in U.S. Senate history last year.

He rose to the rank of Senate minority leader in 2007, remaining in that position until 2015, when Republicans took control of the chamber and he became majority leader — his longtime career ambition. Democrats won back the Senate in 2020, shifting McConnell back to minority leader.

McConnell was plagued with health scares throughout 2023, beginning with a fall in March where he suffered from a concussion and broken rib, missing six weeks of work as he recovered.

The senator then froze and was unable to speak for roughly 20 seconds at a July press conference in the U.S. Capitol before he was led away by colleagues. That scene repeated itself a month later at a press conference in northern Kentucky, when he froze for 30 seconds as his aides stepped in to help.

McConnell said after both incidents that he was only lightheaded and felt fine, releasing a doctor’s note that he did not have a stroke, seizure disorder or Parkinson’s Disease.

After his first freeze up, McConnell’s office vowed that he planned to "serve his full term" as GOP leader in the Senate, which runs through the 2024 general election in November.

McConnell has also dealt with Trump’s call for Republicans to remove him from leadership in the Senate, along with polls showing his approval rating plummeting among Republicans in Kentucky and throughout the country.

The relationship between Trump and McConnell has been icy since January 2021, when the senator blamed Trump for instigating the insurrection of his supporters at the U.S. Capitol — though he later voted to acquit the president in the impeachment trial that month.

Sylvia Goodman contributed to this story.

State government and politics reporting is supported in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Joe is the enterprise statehouse reporter for Kentucky Public Radio, a collaboration including Louisville Public Media, WEKU-Richmond, WKU Public Radio and WKMS-Murray. Email Joe at jsonka@lpm.org.
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