The 143rd annual Fancy Farm picnic is this weekend, and Kentuckians will be treated to a full plate of political speeches as Republican and Democratic contenders for statewide office are set to appear at St. Jerome Parish in rural Graves County.
“It’s steeped in tradition,” says Iris Wilbur Glick, a Republican strategist. “We’ll have a healthy showing of current officeholders, all the candidates, the party-rank and file, you name it... We’ll have a tremendous turnout for Saturday.”
Democrats have been largely absent from Fancy Farm in recent years. The political speeches were cancelled in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. No Democrats appeared at the 2021 picnic, while three spoke at the 2022 event. This year, every Democrat on the November ballot will appear along with their Republican counterparts.
Republicans argue that Democrats have ceded their historic stronghold in western Kentucky to the GOP. They credit that region with helping flip the state House of Representatives and Senate to Republican control in recent years. But Democratic strategist Morgan Eaves notes that Beshear, who has family roots in Hopkins County, won the governor’s office thanks to strong turnout in western Kentucky. She says Beshear’s campaign this year has an endorsement from the Democratic mayor of Mayfield, Kathy O'Nan.
“What does that tell you when Republican local elected officials are coming out for the Democratic gubernatorial nominee?” says Eaves. “It tells you that it’s competitive, we haven’t ceded that area of the state.”
The last time Gov. Andy Beshear appeared at the event was in 2019, when he was a candidate for the state’s highest office. Beshear skipped Fancy Farm in 2021 because of lingering COVID concerns, and last year because of the state’s emergency response to devastating floods that struck eastern Kentucky.
Despite the governor’s absence from Fancy Farm, Democratic consultant Will Carle says Beshear visited western Kentucky when it counted, such as during the recovery from the December 2021 tornado outbreak.
“Showing up is more than a political picnic,” says Carle. “Kentuckians now have a leader that they can see themselves in, somebody that truly cares about them, and I think that is wildly more important than whether or not somebody tells a really good joke on a stage.”
First Joint Appearance by Gubernatorial Nominees
In addition to marking Beshear’s return to the picnic, this Saturday will be the first time that the governor and his Republican challenger, current Attorney General Daniel Cameron, appear on the same stage.
Republican strategist Julia Bright Crigler says this year’s race between Beshear and Cameron is very different than the 2019 gubernatorial contest. That featured then-incumbent Gov. Matt Bevin, an unpopular Republican, against Beshear and Libertarian candidate John Hicks. Beshear won that race by about 5,000 votes. In the process, Hicks garnered more than 28,000 votes.
“Daniel Cameron is not Matt Bevin,” says Crigler. “I know that the other side will try to make all those comparisons, but it’s a very different race.”
Unlike federal officeholders, Crigler says voters want to know and like their governors. She contends that Cameron shares the values of Kentuckians while Beshear does not. Crigler points to how Beshear vetoed a tax-cut package passed by the legislature in 2022 before signing a bill this year that would further lower the state income tax.
“If you want to know who Andy Beshear is, read his veto messages,” says Crigler. “He’s... vetoing lowering of the income tax... and then he’s going out and campaigning on lowering the income tax that he vetoed.”
As for other issues in the gubernatorial campaign, Carle argues the GOP wants to nationalize the governor’s race and promote legislation like transgender bathroom use that he says divides Kentuckians.
“Very few Kentuckians, when they go to bed at night, are more worried about who uses what bathroom than they are about how to make their ends meet or who’s going to show up for them as a leader when something goes wrong,” says Carle.
Glick counters by saying that Republicans have focused on family values, social issues, and parental choice because that’s what they hear from their constituents across the commonwealth.
“I dare Kentucky Democrats to tell voters what should matter,” says Glick. “At the end of the day, when we connect with Kentucky voters, they tell us time and time again that they do not agree with the (President) Joe Biden National Democratic Party platform.”
Even while Republicans hammer Beshear over his COVID shutdowns and other pandemic policies as well has his veto of Senate Bill 150 on gender-affirming health care, Democrats point to the high approval ratings the governor continues to garner in statewide polling. According to a recent Morning Consult poll, even 49 percent of Kentucky Republicans approve of Beshear’s job performance.
Parties Spar Over Attorney General Candidate Qualifications
A number of down-ballot candidates for constitutional office will make their first appearances at Fancy Farm this year, including contenders for state Treasurer, Agriculture Commissioner, and Attorney General.
Democratic nominee for Attorney General Pamela Stevenson brings a reputation for fiery speeches. A retired U.S. Air Force colonel and current state representative from Louisville, Stevenson is also an ordained minister. She will face Russell Coleman, a Paducah native and former U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Kentucky.
Stevenson came under fire in early July when it was reported that she is not licensed to practice law in Kentucky. The Democrat was an attorney in the Air Force for 27 years before retiring and starting a legal practice in Clarksville, Indiana.
Carle says Stevenson can practice in Kentucky under a reciprocal agreement the commonwealth has with the state of Indiana. He adds that she is scheduled to be admitted to the Kentucky Bar this month.
Eaves notes the Kentucky Constitution says that the state Attorney General must have eight years of experience as a litigator and nothing about where they are licensed to practice. She says Stevenson’s storied career in the military makes her more than qualified for the job.
“She’s served and defended the law of United States before military courts,” says Eaves. “I can’t think of anyone who would question this woman’s credentials.”
Republicans say the confusion over Stevenson’s status will leave voters wondering if the Democrat is a serious candidate.
“It’s just a head-scratcher,” says Glick. “When we recruit a candidate for Attorney General, that’s probably (the) number one thing to check-off the list to ensure you’re qualified.”
Candidate qualifications also came up in the 2019 race for Attorney General. Eaves says then-Republican nominee Daniel Cameron had never tried a case in court and barely met the requirement for eight years of experience as an attorney.
Questions about Sen. McConnell’s Participation
Several current officeholders not on the ballot this year will also be featured at Fancy Farm. Rep. Richard Heath (R-Mayfield) and Sen. Jason Howell of Murray will speak as will 1st district Congressman James Comer. U.S. Sen. Rand Paul will be absent from Fancy Farm again this year, and Sen. Mitch McConnell’s participation is listed as “pending.”
The Senate Minority Leader has suffered several health problems this year, including sustaining a concussion and fractured rib in March. Last week, the 81-year-old Republican was escorted away from press microphones when he suddenly stopped mid-sentence and seemed unable to speak. He later returned to finish the briefing, saying he was “fine.”
Crigler and Glick say that McConnell has maintained a robust schedule since that incident, but he is still yet to confirm his appearance at Fancy Farm. Crigler says the senator looks forward to attending the picnic, especially when he can spar with a Beshear (either current governor Andy Beshear or his father, Steve Beshear, a former Kentucky governor).
Although several high-profile Republicans, including former President Donald Trump, and presidential candidate Nikki Haley, have said it’s time for McConnell to retire, Crigler says it continues to be “business as usual” for the Minority Leader.
”Lucky for Kentucky, President Trump and Nikki Haley don’t vote here,” says Crigler. “That’s for the Kentucky voters to decide.”
Carle says Democrats wish McConnell a full recovery from his health problems, adding that it’s difficult for any politician to age in office. Eaves says voters are eager to see if McConnell will be able to make the trip to Graves County this year.
“There will be a lot of pressure on Leader McConnell to show up, especially given the recent speculation about his health,” says Eaves. “Kentuckians are waiting to see will he be on our next ballot for a Senate race or won’t he.”
KET will have live coverage and analysis of all the speeches at Fancy Farm. Join host Renee Shaw and her guests Bob Babbage, Linda Blackford, Trey Grayson, and Austin Horn on Saturday starting at 2:30/1:30 p.m.