On Wednesday afternoon, Kentucky senator Mitch McConnell entered a Marriott in suburban Louisville through the backdoor, avoiding the hundreds of protesters outside with the Instagram-ready signs and pink pussy hats that have become the hallmark of the “resistance” in Trump’s America.
The Senate Majority Leader would spend around 90 minutes in the Marriott ballroom, eating lunch and deigning to answer a handful of questions from constituents who had had the foresight, and spare cash, to buy a ticket days in advance. Three questions in, the audience got a ten-minute warning. The senator would soon leave for another commitment.
As he scurried off the stage, McConnell left more than a dozen questioners in line behind the microphone. One of them loudly asked McConnell if he would have a town hall meeting for all of those who would like an audience with their senator without having to buy a seat.
The woman didn’t get an answer, but she didn’t need one. McConnell will be doing no such thing.
As his colleagues open up auditoriums to throngs of outraged constituents, the most powerful senator in the country has taken a much more careful approach during this week’s recess. He’s holding events open only to small crowds, most requiring tickets or an RSVP. He’s addressing chambers of commerce, employees of a local utility company, student groups, and the local Republican Party, all while freezing out his most vocal detractors.
“Please don’t call them town halls,” Dawn Cooley says. “A town hall is something that is open to the public. It’s a place where constituents can access their elected officials. What McConnell is doing are pay-to-play events.” A co-founder of the newly established Indivisible KY, which is dedicated to “resistance to the Trump agenda,” Cooley says members of her group have been in touch with McConnell’s office to request a true town hall but have been stonewalled.
“Senator McConnell has a tight schedule of constituent visits throughout state work periods,” McConnell spokesperson Stephanie Penn wrote me in an email. Asked why McConnell hasn’t held any events completely open to the public, Penn encouraged voters to contact McConnell online and follow him on social media.
Meanwhile, McConnell is going out of his way to avoid hostile crowds and appear in front of friendly ones, like Wednesday’s, which greeted him with a standing ovation when he took the stage. “He’s more interested in hearing from business owners who will fund his future campaign than he is in speaking with voters,” Cooley says. Of course, his plan isn’t foolproof, a point proven by the now-viral video of a Kentuckian berating him at a Tuesday luncheon.
Though the occasional rabble-rouser may sneak through, McConnell prefers podiums in front of calm crowds full of people who can afford to spend two hours in the middle of a Wednesday eating a $35 lunch. There, he can not only ignore the enraged, but he can analyze their anger.
“They’re sorry they lost the election,” he said of his “fan club.” Their protests are simply “an expression of frustration.”
He’s not wrong. The frustration of protesters was spelled out in plain terms on posterboard a few hundreds yards away from him. They were frustrated about the impending death of the Affordable Care Act (“Hear Us! Keep the ACA”), President Trump’s sexism (“Make America Grope Again”), the GOP’s reluctance to investigate Trump’s connection to Putin (“Do your Job Mitch. Investigate Russian ties.”), and McConnell’s treatment of Elizabeth Warren on the Senate floor earlier this month (“Nevertheless she persisted.”).
But it was McConnell’s refusal to poke his head out of his shell that appeared to draw most of the ire, evident by signs that read: “Coward don’t hide, we be waiting outside!!” “You can’t hide from karma,” “Talk to us Mitch,” and “Face your people Mitch.” Several declared a refusal to “go home,” a reference to a line he delivered Tuesday.
On Friday, McConnell will be the keynote speaker at the Jefferson County GOP’s Lincoln Day dinner. The cheapest ticket to the event is $60 and McConnell’s “fan club” is planning to be there, outside of the hotel ballroom where it will be held, holding a protest dubbed the “Hunt for Mitch.”
He may be doing everything he can to stay away from his constituents, but, Cooley says, “We are not letting him avoid us.”