FANCY FARM, Ky. — Two men moved through the buffet line inside the Knights of Columbus Hall at St. Jerome Parish, spooning barbecue pork, mutton and sides onto their plates, carrying on a congenial conversation about coleslaw and sports. One had a Team Mitch T-shirt slung over his shoulder, while the other wore a T-shirt endorsing Senator Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes. Within hours they would be on opposite sides of the pavilion at the Fancy Farm Picnic, cheering or booing their respective candidates, in a spectacle that has made this tiny town in far western Kentucky famous.
In its 134th year, the Fancy Farm Picnic, a fundraiser for the Roman Catholic parish, remains the most important campaign stop for Kentucky candidates. The politicians shout to ensure they can be heard over the heckling of thousands of attendees, and the candidates attack their opponents through cleverly crafted digs. The speeches are short and to-the-point because of a strictly enforced time limit. The audience is rowdy, but not violent or out of control. Held every year on the first Saturday in August, the heat is oppressive, and the air is scented with barbecue – nine tons of it.
With the entire country watching the Kentucky Senate race, the crowd at Fancy Farm on Saturday, estimated at 20,000, was reportedly the largest ever. It drew media from across the country and a newspaper from Japan. Spectators came out in droves, driven by support for or opposition to the Affordable Care Act, immigration reform and the economic policies of the Obama administration. McConnell supporters see Grimes as another “yea” vote for Obama’s policies, while Grimes supporters see McConnell as the orchestrator of congressional gridlock.
Some just come for the country picnic atmosphere; a band plays popular songs, the children play ring toss games, the adults play bingo, and all flock to the concessions stands for barbecue.
Robert Williams, a local, said he comes every year for the barbecue and bingo, but “I leave before all that starts,” he said, gesturing toward the stage.
The political spectators started showing up early, staking out spots with folding chairs under the metal roof of the pavilion, recently outfitted with a new brick and concrete stage meant to resemble a front porch. Campaign workers handed out stickers for the candidates, so even sans campaign shirt or poster, the party lines were clear.
McConnell supporter Ruby Ziegler, originally from Fancy Farm but living in Alabama, comes back to the picnic every year for a family reunion, as well as for the politics. “Sometimes I get so angry I could kick his butt,” she said of McConnell. “He needs to be stronger against Harry Reid.”
Obama, Harry Reid and coal were the fighting words of the day. The Kentucky coal industry has been dwindling for 30 years because of new technology, natural gas and cheaper coal from other states. The Center for Economic and Policy Research found in 2014 that coal employees only 11,600 workers in Kentucky, or 0.6 percent. However, with more than 90 percent of Kentucky’s energy coming from coal, support of the industry is critical to success at the polls.
Grimes, the Kentucky secretary of state since 2011, is a conservative Democrat, having continually championed the coal industry, citing it as a major difference between her and Obama and criticizing the Environmental Protection Agency’s emission regulations released in early June. Grimes has also avoided any mention of the Affordable Care Act, despite its success in Kentucky because of Gov. Steve Beshear’s efforts in establishing the state exchange called Kynect. Prior to this expansion, one in six Kentuckians lacked health insurance, but since then 413,000 have enrolled.
Grimes has instead focused on improving the economy, raising the minimum wage, and equal pay for women.
“Seventy-six cents on every dollar is not acceptable, and equal pay for equal work is not preferential treatment,” Grimes said in her Fancy Farm speech. “This is not a women’s issue, it’s a family’s issue.” She led the crowd in a call and response based on her claim that Mitch McConnell’s D.C. stood for “Doesn’t Care.”
“When it comes to giving Kentuckians a fighting chance at actually surviving by increasing the minimum wage,” shouted Grimes, “Mitch McConnell …”
“Doesn’t care!” responded the sea of blue-shirted fans.
“I do,” Grimes replied.
Two of her fans were attracting some attention Saturday, holding up large placards of Mitch McConnell’s face, plastered with the words “30 years is enough!”
“He doesn’t support the working middle class of Kentucky, “ said George Sales of Louisville, adding that the state needed someone who could help to raise the minimum wage.
“I like a lot of things about Alison,” Sales said. “She’s articulate, she’s a young fresh face, she’s dynamic, and she clearly cares about the working people of this state.”
Grimes brought up her age as a positive in her speech. Grimes is 35 to McConnell’s 72, an age discrepancy that her campaign has embraced, painting McConnell as archaic and irrelevant.
“Thirty-five is my age, it’s also Senator McConnell’s approval rating.” Grimes said, referencing a poll from 2013 in which McConnell’s approval rating in Kentucky hovered around 35 percent, the same as Obama’s. Sen. Rand Paul’s approval rating in the same poll was 46 percent; his Tea Party messages remain popular in the state, and he came to Fancy Farm to use that popularity to stump for McConnell.
Paul refrained from mentioning his own political ambitions. After taking to the podium amid loud cheers from red-shirted McConnell supporters, twirling placards with Grimes’ face on one side and Obama’s on the other, and hoisting “I stand with Rand” posters, he stressed that Grimes’ “first vote is for Harry Reid” and “a vote for Grimes is essentially a vote for the Obama-Reid agenda.”
“Barack Obama has one goal this year; it’s to hold onto the Senate,” Paul said. “Barack Obama needs Grimes. To stop Barack Obama, Kentucky needs McConnell.”
McConnell used his eight minutes at the podium to equate Grimes with Obama, both ideologically and in terms of legislative experience. In a state with such a low approval rating of the president, Republican candidates have seized on this approach as the surest way to cripple their Democratic challengers. Despite Grimes’ earlier assertion that the president was not on the ballot and “this race is between me and you and the people of Kentucky,” McConnell carried forward with his reliable plan of attack.
“The reality is that the Obama administration and their liberal allies are making America weaker abroad and at home,” McConnell said. “By any standard, Barack Obama has been a disaster for our country.”
“If you think about it, that’s what you get for electing someone with no experience,” McConnell continued as he hammered Obama. “He was only two years into his first job when he started campaigning for the next one. Sound familiar?”
Awkwardly, it did sound familiar, at least in relation to Paul and his well-known presidential ambitions, seated onstage listening to the speech.
McConnell went on to compare Grimes with Obama on her use of former President Bill Clinton as a campaign guest star. Despite Grimes’ lukewarm support of some popular liberal causes, such as healthcare, Democrats across the nation have stepped in to help Grimes unseat McConnell. The progressive Sen. Elizabeth Warren campaigned for Grimes in June, after McConnell voted against Warren’s student loan refinancing bill. Bill Clinton campaigned with Grimes in April, and will be back on the Kentucky trail with her on Aug. 6.
McConnell, his wife, former Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, and Paul all left the stage shortly after the two men finished their speeches. The rest of the politicians and most of the audience stayed to listen to the 2015 gubernatorial candidates stump for their party’s Senate candidates, as well as themselves, before dispersing.
The polls on the Senate race in Kentucky have shown the candidates in a dead heat for the past year. Fancy Farm won’t have much of an effect on that; it can weed out weak candidates, who crumble under the pressure. But Grimes and McConnell both held strong onstage. And while both candidates have publicly expressed the desire to debate, many invitations have been extended from Kentucky organizations and schools, and Grimes and McConnell have yet to agree to debate in the same forum, lessening the chance that they will have to confront one another again before November. The last time they appeared on a stage together was at Fancy Farm last year.
Former Kentucky Gov. Paul Patton, a Democrat who never misses Fancy Farm, compared the race to his own close contest when he was first elected governor in 1995.
“It’s truly a toss-up,” Patton said. “It will depend on organization; it will be that close. Ten thousand to 20,000 votes will probably make the difference in this race.”