Pomp and Politics: How a Small Town Becomes Epicenter of a Senate Showdown

FANCY FARM, Ky. — It was only 10 a.m. and already the mercury was nearing 90. All signs pointed to a typically hot and muggy midsummer’s day here in this western Kentucky town of 500 souls.

Hot as it would get, though, not even Mother Nature could match the torrid trashtalk that would heat up the pavilion behind St. Jerome Catholic Church later in the day. This was the first Saturday in August, after all — a day when the town swells to between 20 and 40 times its usual size for Kentucky’s premier political event, the Fancy Farm Picnic.

Part county fair, part political convention, the annual picnic, now in its 133rd year, has become a Kentucky institution — a must-stop for anyone hoping to win a statewide election. More than 20,000 people turned out for this year’s picnic, a new record, due largely to the heated Senate race between Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes (D).

The race between McConnell, 72, and Grimes, 35, has gained national prominence as one of just a handful of competitive contests in this midterm election year — one in which Republicans hope to win control of the Senate. The GOP needs to flip six seats to win control of the upper chamber. Democrats, meanwhile, are just trying to stop the bleeding. Party leaders know they are likely to lose a few seats, but see a Grimes victory as key to keeping the Senate in their hands.

Carnival Atmosphere

The picnic, hosted by St. Jerome’s and held on the grounds behind the church in downtown Fancy Farm, draws a diverse mix of candidates, campaign operatives, political junkies, state and national media, and of course thousands upon thousands of partisan supporters. Add to that a healthy mix of third-party activists, political causes from guns to coal to teachers — and the non-political events such as bingo, kids’ games and plenty of barbecue — and the picnic takes on a carnival atmosphere, full of political pageantry that is uniquely American.

“It is kind of like a carnival, that’s exactly right,” Jay Johnston, 64, a longtime resident of nearby Mayfield and a veteran of over 30 Fancy Farm Picnics, said as he stabbed at a slab of meat in the barbecue pit Saturday. “But instead of a carnival with rides and all, it’s a carnival of politics.”

He paused a moment, looking up from the grill.

“Or maybe a circus is a better way to describe it,” he said with a grizzled laugh. “Politics is more like a circus, right?”

"Hootin' and Hollerin'"

Thirty paces or so up a slight rise from the barbecue pit is the pavilion, site of the picnic’s main event: the old-style campaign speeches by candidates and their allies. From the stage, and often just a few feet apart, political opponents lash out at one another with partisan putdowns and the kind of in-your-face — literally —attacks that harken back to the days before television and radio made it easy for candidates to launch volleys of accusations and innuendo from afar.

“This is the way it was when I was a young woman — a much younger woman,” Thelma Richardson, 87, said chuckling. The Paducah resident, whose frail frame belied a strong, feisty voice, wore a Grimes’ for Senate T-shirt. “I remember when the candidates would be hootin’ and hollerin’ at one another all the time like they do here. This was before we had television. We had radio but Father always said he wanted to hear the candidates for himself, in person. Hear what they had to say.”

Most of the Fancy Farm speeches are similar to those given at a roast — except in this case, the roaster and roastee aren’t longtime friends who get together for drinks after a night of good-natured ribbing. As with a roast, humor is key at Fancy Farm. One-upmanship is the name of the game here, especially with a crowd full of both supporters and detractors, and the better the jokes, the easier it is to disarm the opposition — and get your supporters cheering for more.

Mitch Like ‘Mad Men’?

“Truly, it’s been a hard year for Mitch McConnell,” Grimes told the crowd during her speech Saturday. “Thirty-five is my age. That’s also Senator McConnell’s approval rating.”

That drew cheers from her supporters and quieted the pro-McConnell crowd’s chant of “We want Mitch!”

“If Mitch McConnell were a TV show, he’d be ‘Mad Men’: Treating women unfairly, stuck in 1968 and ending this season,” Grimes continued, drawing both hearty cheers and a round of boos from the gallery.

McConnell, the Senate minority leader, followed Grimes at the podium, and focused much of his speech not on Grimes but on President Obama, a popular GOP strategy in Senate races nationwide this year given the president’s poor approval ratings.

“Fancy Farm is fun, but there are serious problems confronting our country. And the president acts like he’s on a PGA tour,” the senator quipped to laughs from supporters.