Official PortraitAfter a week of Kentucky Sports Radio host Matt Jones jabbing Sen. Mitch McConnell for backing out of an agreement to come on his show, McConnell unexpectedly called into the program today for an interview that was at times combative.

On Tuesday, Jones told his audience that McConnell’s campaign staff claimed they never agreed for the senator to go on his show, which Jones said was false and assumed was because McConnell was “scared.” Two weeks ago, Alison Lundergan Grimes had a challenging 20-minute interview on the show, which has a large audience across Kentucky.

According to Jones, the senator called in without notice and wanted to go on immediately, though they waited until after the commercial break as Jones hurried to think of questions.

Sen. McConnell with former U of L basketball players Gorgui Dieng and Peyton Siva after the team won the NCAA championship in 2012.
Sen. McConnell with former U of L basketball players Gorgui Dieng and Peyton Siva after the team won the NCAA championship in 2013.

McConnell opened by saying “I think your listeners should know that I’m a UK fan,” and claimed that he remains neutral whenever Kentucky and Louisville play — the latter a somewhat dubious claim, as McConnell is known as a huge U of L fan. McConnell then gave an unsolicited reminder to listeners that Jones likes President Obama.

“I know it’s probably not acceptable to you as an Obama enthusiast, but it’s OK to be for both Louisville and Kentucky,” said McConnell, after which Jones wondered what Obama has to do with basketball.

Jones then launched into questions on the issues, with McConnell reiterating his opposition to raising the minimum wage and the estate tax. When Jones turned to repealing the Affordable Care Act, things got heated. Asked if he would repeal the law entirely, McConnell answered that he would do so, pulling it out “root and branch.”

“But that would take away, senator, what, 500,000 Kentuckians’ health care now?” interjected Jones. McConnell replied, “Can I finish my answer?” leading to an awkward silence before he launched into talking points against Obamacare.

After McConnell attacked Obama’s policies regarding the coal industry, Jones asked the senator if he believes in global warming, to which McConnell answered, “What I have said repeatedly is I am not a scientist.” Jones followed up by asking, “That’s a yes or no question. Do you believe in global warming?”

“No it isn’t,” replied McConnell, raising his voice significantly. “It is not a yes or no question. I am not a scientist. I know there are scientists who think it’s a problem and scientists who think it isn’t a problem … There are differences of opinions among scientists. My job is to try to protect jobs in Kentucky now, not speculate about science in the future.”

When asked if he supports gay marriage, McConnell answered, “I believe that marriage should be between one man and one woman.” Asked why he believes that, McConnell again repeated he thinks marriage is “between one man and one woman.” Again asked “why?” McConnell repeated the same line. Jones tried one more time. Again, “It is my belief that marriage is between one man and one woman.”

The interview ended with McConnell declining to come into the studio for an in-person interview or for an in-studio debate with Grimes. The senator invited Jones to watch his debate with Grimes on KET on Monday, to which Jones answered, “Well, I’ve got other things to do Monday night. I think wrestling is on.”

When passing on a repeat appearance, McConnell noted that “we’ve had a good discussion, it’s been going on for 30 minutes.” (In fact it was only 13 minutes.)

After the interview, Jones and his co-hosts spent much of the remainder of the show in bewilderment about how “unnecessarily combative” and “angry” McConnell was, saying he came off as a “jerk.”

“I had the man who might be Senate majority leader on, and he’s yelling at me!” said Jones, who later wondered if his staff advised him to come on the show and punch him in the face.

McConnell’s campaign strategist Josh Holmes was so defensive from criticism his candidate’s performance received on Twitter that he accused former WFPL political editor Phillip M. Bailey of being paid off by the Grimes campaign.

This was released by the Grimes campaign Wednesday afternoon
This was released by the Grimes campaign Wednesday afternoon

Just as the McConnell campaign pounced on many of Grimes’ answers when she recently appeared on KSR, the Grimes campaign pounced on McConnell’s gruff demeanor with Jones.

“Today’s disastrous performance by Mitch McConnell shows his hostility to the people of Kentucky,” said campaign manager Jonathan Hurst in a statement. “Finding himself losing steam and behind in the latest Bluegrass Poll, Mitch McConnell is desperate to change the narrative. Unfortunately for him, his combative and hostile appearance on Kentucky Sports Radio only further solidified Kentuckians view of him as a untrustworthy Washington insider, willing to play dirty tricks in an attempt to hold onto his personal power.”

Insider Louisville talked to Matt Jones after the interview and asked him how he thought McConnell’s performance came across to his faithful audience.

“I think they’ll give him some credit for coming on, because I think a lot of us assumed he would not come on,” said Jones. “But from what I’ve heard from some people, they do think it was kind of odd how angry he was. But some of that’s just in the eye of the beholder. I thought it was maybe unnecessarily combative. He will get some credit for coming on, but I think the combativeness probably wasn’t the best decision.”

Jones, who has now landed arguably the two most comprehensive public interviews with either candidate over the past year, said he’s happy he was able to present many of his listeners with a side of the candidates they haven’t seen before.

“My goal was to try to get people who don’t follow politics on a daily basis to be able to hear about an important race from the candidates, and to do it in a humanizing, normal way,” said Jones. “I think for the most part that was successful. I wish he had come into the studio, but beyond that…”

The lesson for political journalists, who often struggle to get even one question in directly to either candidate, may just be to get a bigger audience.

“I think they both realized the power of the medium,” said Jones. “I think they both realized it was probably the largest audience, well, I would argue it might be the largest audience either one of them talks to over the course of this campaign.”

You can hear the full audio of the interview below:

Joe Sonka

Joe Sonka

Joe Sonka is a staff writer at Insider Louisville focusing on government, politics, education and public safety. He is a former news editor and staff writer at LEO Weekly and has also freelanced for The Nation and ThinkProgress. He has won first place awards from the Louisville Metro chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists in the categories of Health Reporting, Enterprise Reporting, Government/Politics, Minority/Women’s Affairs Reporting, Continuing Coverage and Best Blog. Email him at [email protected]