FANCY FARM, Ky. — Here’s how the 2014 Senate race would look if the candidates were defined solely on how their opponents described them at the 133rd annual St. Jerome Fancy Farm political picnic:
Alison Lundergan Grimes? In the pocket of President Obama.
Mitch McConnell? An obstructionist who manages to also be too compromising.
Matt Bevin? He doesn’t even exist.
Under an uncharacteristically cloudy sky and fits of drizzling rain, thousands flocked to the political picnic in search of political theater and pulled-pork sandwiches amid a backdrop dominated by one of the most anticipated races in the nation.
“I’ve heard over and over and over again that this is an off year for politics,” Mark Wilson, Fancy Farm’s affable political chair, told the teeming audience. “It doesn’t look like an off year to me.”
The cooler temperatures didn’t dampen the mercurial stump-style speeches that have given the yearly Graves County gathering its increasing fame—speeches made all the hotter courtesy of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s 2014 hotly contested re-election bid against Democratic Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, the daughter of well-connected Kentucky Democratic luminary Jerry Lundergan, and primary challenger Matt Bevin, a businessman who is challenging McConnell’s right flank with the support of some Tea Party activists.
Because of the intense interest surrounding McConnell’s political future, “Fancy Farm is the core of America’s political universe today,” said Ferrell Wellman, Kentucky Educational Television host and the emcee.He noted the presence of national media and live-streaming by C-SPAN.
The Candidates Trade Barbs
Amid cheers and jeers from the rowdy crowd, McConnell was the first of the Senate candidates to speak, and wasted little time in attacking Grimes.
“Before I get started, I want say how nice it is to see Jerry Lundergan back in the game. Like the loyal Democrat he is, he’s taking orders from Obama on how to run his daughter’s campaign. And he told them to make a pitch for the women’s vote and to send a check to Anthony Weiner.”
Last month, media reports uncovered a $4,950 check made out by Lundergan to the campaign of embattled New York City mayoral candidate and serial sexter Anthony Weiner, which observers noted further tied Lundergan to fellow Weiner supporters Bill and Hillary Clinton. Lundergan served as Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager for Kentucky in 2008, whereas the former president pushed Grimes to run and appeared in a video supporting her at her campaign’s official kickoff in Lexington last week.
McConnell largely repeated talking points which he polished at a GOP breakfast held earlier in the day at Graves County High School—specifically that he would be ideal to replace Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) in the event of a hypothetical GOP takeover of the chamber.
“We’re not just choosing who’s going to represent Kentucky in the Senate,” he said. “We’re going to decide who’s going to run the Senate. And here’s the choice: Is the Senate gonna be run by an Obama ‘yes man’ who believes coal makes you sick, or the guy you’re lookin’ at?”
McConnell did not mention his primary opponent Matt Bevin—CEO and co-founder of Bevin Brothers bell manufacturing company—once in his speech, and instead levied most of his attacks at the federal government, including the recent IRS scandal involving the perceived extra tax scrutiny of conservative groups by the unpopular government agency.
Seated next to her grandmother and fellow campaign ad star, Elsie, Grimes took the podium amid deafening chants of “Team Mitch,” focusing the majority of her six-minutes on McConnell’s obstructionism in the Senate.
“The truth is there’s a reason Senator McConnell is disliked,” she said, likening the senior senator to “a disease of dysfunction in Washington, D.C.”
Grimes struck at what has become a sore spot for McConnell in the press in recent weeks, recalling the filibuster compromise negotiated by senate Republicans, including Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), as a sign of what pundits speculate as an example of McConnell’s waning power as his attention becomes increasingly focused on obtaining re-election.
“It’s been a tough month for him, she said. “The entire GOP caucus went around him to accomplish filibuster reform.”
Bevin piggybacked on the sentiment, adding that McConnell’s quest for power has “left Kentucky wondering, ‘Where’s Mitch?’”
As Bevin’s supporters clanged their complementary bells, Bevin delivered one of the more melodramatic lines of the day.
“Ask not for whom the bell tolls, Senator,” he shouted. “The bell tolls for you! They toll for you because they’ve had enough of the amnesty, the bailouts.”
Before making his exit with his children in tow, Bevin compared McConnell to King George III, the ruler of Great Britain during the American Revolution of 1776.
Bevin refrained from criticizing Grimes—he said he’d get a chance for that after the primary.
Grassroots Democratic senate candidate Ed Marksberry also spoke, wearing a fedora he threw into the crowd which he said represented the late perennial candidate and Lexington attorney Gatewood Galbraith, who was often seen wearing one during his many appearances at the Fancy Farm picnic.
“Gatewood was the best example of what you’d consider a grassroots candidate,” Marksberry began. “The party shouldn’t pick the candidate, it should be the people.”
Other speakers included Treasury Secretary Adam Edelen, Attorney General Jack Conway and Agriculture Commissioner James Comer, all three of which are considering runs for governor in 2015.
Aside from Saturday’s main event, the Fancy Farm picnic spawns a multitude of party gatherings in the surrounding counties, most notably the Marshall County Democratic bean supper and the Republican breakfast held at Graves County High School.
At the bean supper Friday night, Grimes opened up to the press for the first time since an interview with Politico, fielding three questions from reporters on perceived problems with the Affordable Care Act and offered a boilerplate explanation of her proposed balanced budget amendment.
Grimes praised Obamacare’s abolition of denying insurance customers on the grounds of pre-existing conditions, as well, but offered specifics of her problems with the health reform law.
“For me, concerns that I have are in terms of the regulatory impact that it’s going to have on our businesses as well as in terms of the employer mandate,” Grimes told reporters.
As the headliner of the bean dinner, Grimes leveled some of her most critical comments toward both McConnell—whom she called “the guardian of gridlock”—as well as President Obama, whom she chided for having anti-coal policies and regulations.
While her bean dinner speech was largely a rehash of the one she delivered to a crowd of thousands at her campaign’s July 30 kickoff in Lexington, she did offer to supporters a new piece of statistical red meat in the form of a poll released earlier that day by the non-partisan Cook Political Report, which recategorized the state from “leaning Republican” to “tossup.”
The Cook poll was released on the heels of two polls, an internal poll by the Mellman Group for the Grimes campaign and a poll conducted by the liberal-leaning Public Policy Polling, which placed her at two points and one point, respectively, over McConnell. Despite the bias of those polls, and that they place Grimes firmly within the margin of error, many pundits have nonetheless declared that the race is already extremely close at such an early stage.
A survey released by the Republican Wenzel Strategies painted a different picture of the race as of July 23-24, placing the incumbent McConnell nearly 40 points over Bevin, and leading Grimes by eight points.
If you want to see the speeches, go here.
Last Note: Heiner for Governor?
At the GOP breakfast, Hal Heiner—ormer Republican Louisville Metro Councilman and 2010 mayoral candidate—said he is considering running for governor in 2015, citing concern over the direction Kentucky is heading under current Democratic leadership.