Politics

In videos of Fancy Farm, the annual political throwdown in southwestern Kentucky, you’ll usually see little white ceiling fans spinning furiously above the speakers, who are all shouting and sweating profusely with their sleeves rolled up.

It’s one of the few events in U.S. politics where speakers address an audience made up of both supporters and opponents.

Unlike a debate, Fancy Farm attendees are allowed to heckle or cheer those on the stage — a practice that organizers, politicians and beyond have tried to limit, to little effect.

But two days before the annual Fancy Farm picnic, it’s peaceful in Graves County.

Members of St. Jerome’s Catholic Church are readying the Knights of Columbus fairgrounds for bingo and barbeque, and it’s hard to imagine the racket that will soon arrive.

Mark Wilson, organizer of the event’s political speaking portion, says he depends on each year’s Fancy Farm emcee to at least try to control the crowd.

“We want the crowd to have fun — I mean, hey, that’s Fancy Farm — but we also want them to be able to hear what the speaker’s got to say,” Wilson says.

The emcee embodies that delicate balance.

This year, Republican operative Scott Jennings will emcee the event and will — just like every other emcee — likely throw in his own jabs, too, sometimes fueling the fire.

Kentucky Sports Radio host Matt Jones was the emcee last year and started off with a burn of Sen. Rand Paul, who was campaigning in Iowa at the time.

“Come back home, you’re not going to win,” Jones says. “The crazy people are voting for Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders, you’re not going to win.”

Democrat Jack Conway, Republican Matt Bevin and emcee Matt Jones onstage at last year’s Fancy Farm.

Jones is a Democrat, but he still took time to make fun of Democratic politicians like former gubernatorial candidate and attorney general Jack Conway.

Jones says he tried to make fun of everybody on stage, regardless of affiliation.

“In that setting where everybody’s so overtly partisan, when I made a joke at the expense of the Republicans, the Democrats liked it, the Republicans didn’t. So by the end of it I think I made all of them mad,” Jones says.

Fancy Farm emcees have varied, from reporters such as Ferrell Wellman and Al Cross to politicians including former Supreme Court Justice Bill Cunningham and former Republican Agriculture Commissioner James Comer.

I asked this year’s emcee, Scott Jennings, why politicians even subject themselves to the event, given the teasing and heckling that takes place.

“I think it shows some guts, and I think voters, even when they’re not at Fancy Farm, appreciate when politicians show the guts to show up,” Jennings says.

Democratic speakers will be outnumbered more than two-to-one by Republicans on stage this year. That’s partly because Republicans now hold most of the constitutional offices in Frankfort and congressional seats in Washington.

But notably absent will be Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes and Attorney General Andy Beshear, two of the most prominent Democrats in the state. Both are electing to spend time with family, they say, rather than attend Fancy Farm.

The crowd’s heckling can sometimes drown out the speakers.

Jennings says he wishes there were more Democrats coming.

“I think the beauty of Fancy Farm is that the crowd that comes wants to be engaged with the speakers from their own party,” Jennings says. “So when you don’t have as many, there’s not as much for your side of the crowd to be engaged with. That isn’t ideal.”

As Fancy Farm organizer Mark Wilson puts it, the picnic is a “must-attend deal,” but there are considerable political risks.

“It can’t necessarily help you, but if you make a gaffe, I mean, it could hurt you, we’ve had that happen,” Wilson says.

Fancy Farm starts at 2:30 p.m. Central Standard Time on Saturday. KET will stream the event live online.

Ryland Barton is the Capitol bureau chief for Kentucky Public Radio.