In a little less than two weeks, elected officials, political hopefuls and barbecue enthusiasts will flock to far western Kentucky for the 142nd annual Fancy Farm Picnic.
Every year, thousands flood into the small Graves County community to talk politics and partake in pulled pork at the event put on by St. Jerome Catholic Church in Fancy Farm, setting the table for November’s election and other high profile state races, including next spring’s gubernatorial primary.
The event’s importance resonates on a local level for Fancy Farm native Steven Elder, the event’s political chairman. He says the event is western Kentucky’s “time to shine” on the political stage.
“Traditionally and historically, it’s always been a place that leaders can come and enjoy some barbecue, some jawing back and forth and see some rural folks,” Elder said. “Rural Kentucky’s important, the picnic is important and it gives us the time to bring our leaders together down this way and, again, to show our resources, our assets, who we are, what we do, and why we’re important to the rest of the state.”
This year, Elder is hoping for a return to some semblance of normalcy after two years shaped by the pandemic. Political speeches were canceled at the event in 2020 and 2021 saw all major Democrat speakers decline invitation to the picnic, including Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear and Lt. Gov. Jacqueline Coleman.
“We had a picnic last year, it was a little subdued because the Democrats decided to somewhat boycott that picnic,” Elder said. “They didn’t want to come down or participate because of COVID, and I understand that except that we were having outdoor events throughout the state. So it was time for us to kind of get back into the action.”
While the picnic is back in full swing, Beshear will be missing the gathering for a second year. The governor announced he would be unable to attend last week in a social media post because he and First Lady Britainy Beshear would be traveling to Israel in August.
Elder said an invitation to the lieutenant governor is still pending. Barring Coleman’s acceptance, U.S. Senate candidate Charles Booker is the only Democratic speaker currently set to attend.
Elder hopes that changes.
“I want the picnic to have that [balanced] message because that message radiates from Fancy Farm, but it’s spread throughout the state. So I think it’s fair to have a message from both sides,” the political chairman said.
Booker’s opponent in November, Rand Paul, is one of many Republican candidates expected to attend, though his attendance depends on a timely Senate recess. Elder hopes having both candidates in a race on the scene will bring some much needed energy to the picnic.
Many candidates from the crowded Republican field for next year’s gubernatorial race will be in attendance – including Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron, Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles, Kentucky State Auditor Mike Harmon and Ky. Representative Savannah Maddox.
“So it’s kind of a Republican primary battleground. This is the last picnic before the Republican primary,” Elder said. “Normally you wouldn’t have this much competition in Republican primaries in the state so Fancy Farm is an opportunity in a way to get your message out there and it’s good timing.”
Kentucky House of Representatives Speaker David Osborne (R-Prospect) is emceeing the event this year. Other confirmed attendees include U.S. Congressman James Comer; Kentucky Secretary of State Michael Adams; Kentucky Treasurer Allison Ball; State Sen. Jason Howell (R-Murray); and State Rep. Richard Heath (R-Mayfield). U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell’s attendance, like Paul’s, depends on a timely Senate recess.
In past decades, western Kentucky was a Democratic stronghold, but recent years have seen it flip hard red in federal, state and local elections. The shift was so drastic it recently inspired a book studying the arc of the politics and economy of the region. Elder says the shift could stem from a variety of factors – differences between local and national politics, economic trends, social beliefs or even the health of the region’s agricultural business community.
The region’s political transformation has, in turn, seen a shift in the makeup of the Fancy Farm Picnic, but Elder says that’s no cause for concern.
“Senator McConnell, when he first started coming down in 1984, I think there were probably three Republicans in a telephone booth. I don’t remember that 1984 picnic, but I would imagine that they probably laughed at him for coming down to Fancy Farm when it was such a heavily Democrat area,” Elder said. “But the picnic committee folks back then weren’t afraid to allow the Republicans to come in and share their message. So now it’s Democrats’ turn to persuade voters and share their message to see if they could swing it back the other way.
“[It’s] a tradition that’s been around for 142 years. I’m not concerned at all of the viability or the longevity of the picnic to go for the next 142 years.”