(For complete 2014 midterm coverage, get your campaign fix on The Grid.)
FANCY FARM, Ky. — They came ready for a war of words and they got it. And then some.
A record crowd of more than 20,000 spectators — including thousands clad in T-shirts professing their support for either Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell or his opponent, Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes — flooded this tiny hamlet Saturday for the annual Fancy Farm Picnic, a 133-year-old piece of Americana that takes center stage in Kentucky politics the first weekend of every August.
The event, a mandatory stop for any statewide candidate on the stump, has become famous for the kind of raucous rhetoric and insult-laden political theater that was de rigueur in American politics a century ago. The crowd at the Fancy Farm Picnic is as much a part of the show as the candidates themselves, cheering and heckling as the jabs fly between the contenders.
This year’s picnic drew twice as many spectators as usual — along with twice the number of national media outlets — due to the high-profile U.S. Senate race between McConnell, the Senate’s minority leader, and Grimes, Kentucky’s secretary of state. The contest is one of a handful of competitive races nationwide that could decide control of the Senate.
Saturday’s event was the first time McConnell and Grimes have appeared together in this year’s campaign, and each did their best to out-trash talk the other in their allotted time (each speaker has about five minutes to say their piece. Those who go over the limit here get an ignominious hook — their mike turned off to the strains of the Rolling Stones’ “Time is on My Side.”) Both candidates also did their best to make the most of the national attention that was focused not only on what they had to say, but on how they reacted to their rival’s taunts and the mixed crowd’s reaction. For both, Fancy Farm is a far cry from the typical, highly orchestrated campaign events before handpicked friendly crowds.
After surrogates from both parties, including Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear and Republican state Sen. Stan Humphries, got the crowd going with their own partisan volleys, the main event began with Grimes. She took the stage to boos from one side of the packed Fancy Farm pavilion and wild cheers from the other.
“Welcome to Mitch McConnell’s retirement party!” she hollered enthusiastically.
Grimes didn’t mince words, taking aim at the 30-year incumbent by ticking off a series of issues, each one followed by the mantra-like chant of “Mitch McConnell doesn’t care.”
“When it comes to supporting seniors, Mitch McConnell doesn’t care,” she said. “Seniors deserve a senator who will fight for Social Security, not one who will try to disable it.”
Women, too, are getting short shrift from McConnell, Grimes argued.
“When it comes to women being treated equally, Mitch McConnell doesn’t care,” she said, continuing the theme. She then turned to her opponent sitting a few feet away and said, “Women in Kentucky and nationally are here to send you a message, senator: 76 cents on dollar not equal pay. … This is not a woman’s issue. This is a family issue.”
Students, unions and coal miners are among the other groups the incumbent “doesn’t care” about, Grimes said.
Kentucky’s beleaguered coal industry is a sensitive issue in the campaign. Republicans say Grimes would only help President Barack Obama implement proposed environmental measures that would scale back the use of coal and, the GOP says, cost thousands of industry jobs.
But Grimes blunted that criticism Saturday when she announced her endorsement by the United Mine Workers.
“They are standing shoulder to shoulder with me because they’re tired of the hot air from Sen. McConnell,” she said.
McConnell’s speech focused in on an issue that has become his campaign’s main strategy since the start: Tying Grimes to the unpopular Obama.
“Barack Obama has been a disaster,” he said. “I guess that’s what we get for electing someone with no experience. … Sound familiar? He raised millions from extreme liberals. Sound familiar? I mean he really didn’t have any qualifications. Sound familiar?”
The implication, of course, is that Grimes is an “Obama clone,” a relatively inexperienced politician seeking higher office with millions from liberal donors.
McConnell kept on the Obama theme, telling the crowd that the president “and his liberal buddies in the media can’t tell the difference between a coal miner and a European male model.”
He urged voters to send him back to the Senate — and appealed to voters in other battleground states to help the GOP win back control of the Senate.
“We’ve got people who are hurting and we’re going to help,” he said. “The only way to begin to change America in 2014 is to change the Senate. Send this proud Kentuckian to lead a new Senate and we’ll take our country back.”
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) followed McConnell, reciting a limerick poking fun at Grimes. The Democrat sat tight-lipped but otherwise expressionless as the junior senator’s poem drew both cheers and boos from the hyper-partisan crowd.
“There once was a lady from Kentucky, who thought in politics she’d be lucky. So she flew to L.A. for a Hollywood bash. She came home in a flash with buckets of cash,” Paul said. “To liberals, she whispers, coal makes you sick. In Kentucky, she claims, ‘coal makes us tick.’ To the liberals she sells her soul; the same ones who hate Kentucky coal.”