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.
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.
When he did target Grimes, McConnell still managed to continue the Obama theme.
“But I’ll give my opponent credit,” McConnell said. “She knows Barack Obama can’t be counted on to do anything about the crisis on the border. So listen to this — this week she came up with her own plan to keep folks from streaming into our country. Missile defense.”
The jab was a reference to a story in the Lexington Herald Leader last week in which Grimes said Israel’s Iron Dome defense system has helped prevent Hamas terrorists from using the group’s network of tunnels beneath the Gaza Strip. The Iron Dome is a surface-to-air missile system that intercepts rockets fired by Hamas. Grimes says her comments were taken out of context and what she meant is that the missile system has freed up Israeli forces to switch their focus to destroying the tunnels.
Red And Blue
The crowd at this year’s picnic seemed split pretty evenly between McConnell and Grimes supporters, with throngs of each spilling off to either side of the pavilion. The Grimes-McConnell split was fairly easy to see at the center of the venue. On one side, the Democrats’ blue T-shirts dominated; on the other, the Republicans’ red garb was everywhere.
The T-shirts represented the traditional red-blue divide of Democrats and Republicans, of course, but more than that, the messages on each went a long way in summing up the strategies of both campaigns. The Grimes campaign shirts read: “Ditch Mitch” on one side, and on the other, “Welcome to the RetireMitch Party,” with “Mitch” written over a scrawled out “ment.” The Grimes camp has focused on McConnell’s status as an entrenched Washington politician who Democrats say represents the partisan gridlock that has plagued the capital for years.
On the McConnell shirts were the words: “Obama Needs Alison Grimes; Kentucky Needs Mitch McConnell.” The senator’s campaign strategy has centered on tying Grimes to the unpopular president and what Republicans say are his “job-killing policies.” McConnell says that if Grimes is elected, she will be a puppet for the president, helping him pass an agenda that includes environmental regulations that Republicans say would hurt Kentucky’s traditional coal industry.
For many, though, the race can’t be summed up with just a slogan on a T-shirt. Other issues, including abortion, education and veterans’ rights, weigh heavy on voters’ minds.
“Did you see that sign someone was holding?” Bill Hamilton, an Owensboro resident and McConnell supporter, said. “‘What Would Jesus Do? Support Grimes?’ [Grimes] is pro-abortion. Jesus wouldn’t support that.”
Hamilton sees McConnell’s 30 years in the Senate as a positive, not the detriment that Grimes claims.
“He has the experience and that helps Kentucky,” he said. “I also think he’s the more educated of the two candidates. He’s part of the leadership for a reason.”
Jay Lowe, a teacher’s assistant from Williamsburg, held up a sign at the picnic with a simple message of support: “Men for McConnell.”
“I just want him to know that there are plenty of men who support him,” Lowe said when asked if the sign was referencing any specific policy or position. “McConnell is the most conservative of the two running and he’s fighting for us. He’s fighting for our jobs.”
But John Ed Pennington, a retired Department of Transportation supervisor who has served on the Manchester City Council for 24 years, sees things differently.
“Mitch hasn’t done anything for us,” he said. “Alison is for the working person. She’s for equal pay, and better services for veterans and for miners. She’s the perfect candidate.”