Welcome to Thunderdome, I mean Fancy Farm: My first visit to Kentucky’s premier political event

Pork may be king in the world of Kentucky politics, but it takes a back seat to mutton on the first Saturday of each August. That’s when the folks of St. Jerome Parish in Fancy Farm, Ky., get together for their annual picnic, among the world’s largest.

I’ve worked in this state for more than 15 years and planned to cover the picnic for at least 10 of those. Every year, though, something has always come up and I’ve missed it. Not this year.

Covering the 130th annual Fancy Farm Picnic was definitely a memorable experience for me. Coincidentally, the political speaking portion was even emceed by my very own state representative from the other side of the state, Jeff Hoover (R-Jamestown).

I’m not sure if Hoover has served as Fancy Farm’s ringmaster before or not, but I thought he did a good job. For instance, after a fiery opening speech by Gov. Steve Beshear set the tone for all speakers to come, Hoover followed up simply with “All I can say is, welcome to Fancy Farm 2010!”

Beshear, a Democrat and native of Western Kentucky who’s seeking re-election to a second term as governor in 2011, started off touting his administration’s accomplishments before ripping into Tea Party Republican Senate candidate Rand Paul.

“My friends, Jack Conway’s political philosophy is in the mainstream of Kentucky political thought,” Beshear said of the Democratic Senate nominee. “Rand Paul’s political philosophy is in the extreme.”

“You know,” the governor said of Paul, “Nobody really knew where this guy stood until the primary was over. And then he escaped his handlers about three times. And when he did, he actually told the people of Kentucky where he stood on some issues. And it scared the be-living… out of us all.”

While that kind of rhetoric is fairly common in campaign season, it’s not so common for the guy you’re talking about to be sitting 15 feet away.

Fancy Farm has a certain palpable energy that’s hard to describe, an air of mostly good-natured partisan bickering mixed with theatrics and fellowship. The whole experience might be best described as half county fair, half professional wrestling match.

Unlike most political events which are scripted and stage-managed to death, the Fancy Farm audience is allowed — even encouraged — to heckle and catcall. Take this bit from the governor’s lead-off speech, for example:

“This is the season for partisan political talk,” Beshear said. “But those of us that you have allowed to be in elective leadership know something else: partisan political rhetoric has never got the first person a job. It’s never put the first piece of food on the table. It’s never put a roof over anybody’s head. It’s never sent our kids to school.”

At that point, a man in the audience blurted out “Neither have you!” Like the emcee said, welcome to Fancy Farm.

Secretary of State Trey Grayson, who lost badly to Paul in the 2010 Republican Senate primary, started his speech by lobbing a barb at the Democrats. “At least I’m here, unlike your candidates,” Grayson said, in reference to Democratic Senate primary candidate Daniel Mongiardo’s decision to skip Fancy Farm. Grayson’s speech ended with a bluegrass band playing Rocky Top, Gong Show-style, because he went over his allotted time.

“Who wants to hear Rocky Top in Big Blue country?” explained program organizer Mark Wilson.

One of the biggest disappointments of the day was that Grayson, who’s term-limited in his current position, made no mention of his own future plans. (Among other offices, Grayson has been talked about as a possible gubernatorial candidate, as well as a possible candidate for attorney general.)

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky’s longest-serving senator and a seasoned Fancy Farm veteran, came on stage to thunderous boos and cheers in nearly equal measure. As usual, he responded with his trademark double thumbs-up.

McConnell’s “Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi, yada, yada, yada” rhetoric was in line with what seems to be the current nationwide Republican strategy of linking Democratic candidates to unpopular incumbents whenever possible. “When you stand with Obama and Pelosi, you don’t stand with Kentucky,” the senator said.

Unlike most GOP speakers, though, McConnell avoided mentioning fellow Senator Harry Reid, the Democratic majority leader.

McConnell’s speech had a couple pretty clever lines, but both missed their mark a bit. For instance, he said “Unlike the rest of the country in 2008, Kentucky did not fall for ‘Hope’ and ‘Change.’ Kentucky knew better.”

He was referring to the fact that Obama lost Kentucky by 16.2% in 2008, but anyone not familiar with the Obama campaign’s buzzwords and Kentucky political history could be left scratching their head thinking “Kentuckians are against hope and change?” No way that could be used to reinforce the state’s existing negative stereotypes.

The senator’s best line? “Now look, Rand Paul has spent his entire professional career helping people out of ambulances. Jack Conway has spent his professional career chasing ambulances.” Pretty snappy, until you remember that Paul’s an eye surgeon.

Attorney General Jack Conway won the coin toss, so he was the first Senate candidate to speak. Much like Beshear, he went straight for his fellow Duke University graduate’s jugular.

“There seems to be an emerging theme for Rand Paul and the Republicans this year, and they state it simply as ‘Accidents happen,’” Conway said.

“Now, let me break it down for you and you can hear that the answer to all of the following questions are that ‘Accidents happen.’ First, what did Rand Paul say to the families along the Gulf Coast who lost their jobs and their way of life because of BP? ‘Accidents happen.’”

“What did Rand Paul say to the widows of Kentucky coal miners? ‘Accidents happen.’ What would Rand Paul say to the thousands of Americans who lost their life savings because of Wall Street’s greed? ‘Accidents happen.’”

“And what did Mitch McConnell say to the Republican National Committee the morning after the primary?” “Accidents happen,” replied a portion of the audience, call-and-response style.

“But the accident that Kentucky and the nation can not allow to happen,” Conway said, “would be the election of Rand Paul.”

Conway also called Paul “A waffling pessimist who wants to be the prince of cable TV” and supporters set up a “Rand Paul’s Waffle House” booth mimicking the popular Southern restaurant chain.

Paul spoke from prepared notes, which is unusual for him. He usually speaks extemporaneously, but saying what he really thinks instead of what’s been safely vetted beforehand has come back to bite him on more than one occasion. Add in the extra pressure of speaking before such a raucous crowd and he’d have been crazy not to use notes.

Paul basically went with his standard stump speech, so he wasn’t able to harness the crowd’s energy as effectively as Conway. “The U.S. tax code is so large and so out of control, like the rest of Washington, that I couldn’t carry it on stage,” Paul began. “As you can see, the U.S. tax code takes eight people to lift. The U.S. tax code is 16,000 pages long. If you stack it vertically, the U.S. tax code would be nearly seven feet tall.”

“Washington is broken,” Paul said. “Government needs reform from top to bottom.” Valid points, but not very sexy.

It wasn’t long before he also invoked the same tie-the-Dems-to-a-sinking-ship strategy that McConnell had used in his speech. “President Obama,” Paul said as the crowd started booing, “President Obama thinks, like Jack does, that we can borrow our way out of this recession. It won’t happen.”

“I say to Nancy Pelosi, ‘Come on down to Kentucky. Campaign with Jack. You can talk about cap and trade and Obamacare all you want,’ Paul continued. “Good luck on that one, Jack.”

The most direct barb he lobbed at Conway was that “Working Kentuckians will not vote for a man who’s going to double their electric bill,” a reference to the 3% Atmos Energy rate increase negotiated by the attorney general’s office in May. The utility, which has donated to Conway’s campaign, originally requested a larger increase.

(Conway’s Democratic primary opponent filed an ethics complaint with the Kentucky Executive Branch Ethics Commission, claiming the AG-come-Senate-candidate had a conflict of interest. The commission dismissed the complaint in July, saying campaign contributions aren’t considered gifts under the state’s ethics code.)

Paul also touched on his idea of instituting a 20-day waiting period for each page of proposed legislation before it could be voted upon (“Is it too much to ask them to read the bills?”). Unlike many of his past speeches, though, he didn’t draw comparisons between this proposed waiting period and the waiting period currently imposed on gun buyers.

“I think America’s greatest days lie ahead of her, but only if we the citizenry, the beleaguered taxpayer, the working backbone of America, join together to take this great country back,” Paul said in his closing.

“To unleash the power, the brilliance, the exponential energy of capitalism. To show that once again we can be that beacon of liberty that shines so brightly that all people in all nations wish to emulate this grand experiment of freedom.” (Was that a nod to Ronald Reagan’s “Shining city upon a hill?” Reagan at Fancy Farm would’ve been fun.)

Paul didn’t seem to connect with the Fancy Farm crowd like Conway did, and it looked to me like he sensed it as he left the stage. Less than two minutes later, he left the platform and the picnic grounds (probably to prepare for a private fundraiser scheduled a few hours later in Mayfield).

Conway apparently hung around to mingle with attendees, but I missed it. Since his Waffle House didn’t have hashbrowns, I headed straight for the $10 buffet line.

I'm a Mid-South photojournalist, Kentucky writer and digital media consultant (or eNinja™). Circle me on Google Plus at Plus.BillySuratt.com, follow me on Twitter at @surattb and Instagram me at @BillySuratt. Got a news tip or suggestion about some journalism that needs committed? Email blog@billysuratt.com (discretion is always guaranteed).

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