Kentucky Politics

Republican politicians and voters were the tone-setters at the 2022 Fancy Farm Picnic both on- and off-stage. The speakers pavilion in the small Graves County community served as the backdrop for four big-name candidates from the crowded field for the GOP 2023 gubernatorial primary to make their pitches.

Kentucky’s Attorney General Daniel Cameron, Agricultural Commissioner Ryan Quarles,  Representative Savannah Maddox, and Auditor Mike Harmon each had four minutes to make their case in front of the raucous crowd.

Some gave simple stump speeches and others tossed some traditional Fancy Farm flair into the mix, attempting to skewer Gov. Andy Beshear, the state and national Democratic Party or even each other with one-liners.

With Republican Kentucky House Speaker David Osborne emceeing the event, zingers, jibes and quips were on the menu along with a heaping helping of barbecue ⁠— only these roasts came with a side of overpowering boos and heckling.

Roberto Roldan

Kentucky Commissioner of Agriculture Ryan Quarles speaks at Fancy Farm 2022 in Graves County as campaigns for the 2023 GOP gubernatorial primary.

Quarles, who was the first to enter the primary race, thanked U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell for “growing the party.” Just last month, Republican registered voters surpassed Democrats, a historic moment for the GOP that upended decades of Democratic leadership in the state, a feat every Republican speaker acknowledged in their speech.

Quarles grew up on a farm in Scott County and said his family has lived in the area for nine generations. He is in his second four-year term as agriculture commissioner, and before that served in the state legislature.

Measures enacted by Beshear during the COVID-19 pandemic were a point of criticism for several speakers at the picnic, including Quarles.

“Let’s not forget that Andy Beshear was a shutdown governor. He shut down our economy, he shut down our mom-and-pop stores, he killed countless jobs and kept the big box stores open,” Quarles said.

He then moved on to his elevator pitch for governor.

“I’m Christian, I’m pro-life and pro-gun. We need to fund our police and not defund our police, and as we learned in Virginia, parents should have a say on what needs to be taught in our schools, and I think it’s wrong for biological males to compete with biological women in sports,” Quarles said. “It’s time to stop paying people to sit at home and watch Netflix. Running for governor should not be about who has the biggest insults, but who has the biggest ideas.”

The devastation in western Kentucky after tornadoes ravaged the region in December was a footnote in most speeches by GOP politicians. As Quarles ended his speech with a mention of the eastern Kentucky flood relief efforts, chants of “Ryan! Ryan!” were met with chants of “Andy! Andy!”

WKMS / Derek Operle

Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron speaks at Fancy Farm 2022 as he campaigns for the 2023 GOP gubernatorial primary.

The deadly flooding that continues to impact eastern Kentucky drew mentions throughout the proceedings. Cameron, the attorney general, lauded the relief and rebuilding efforts in the wake of both historic disasters.

The Trump-endorsed candidate also referenced his recent successful effort to reinstate Kentucky’s abortion ban.

“There is only one candidate that can say he’s ended abortions in Kentucky. There’s only one candidate who can say that he has fought for your constitutional rights all the way to the United States Supreme Court. There is only one candidate who has gone toe-to-toe with the Biden administration and won,” he said.

Throughout Cameron’s speech, members of the crowd chanted “Breonna Taylor” in attempt to drown him out. His office was the first to investigate the police raid on Taylor’s apartment that led to her death, but that produced no charges directly linked to her killing.

In contrast, U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland announced last Thursday that his office charged four former and current Louisville Metro Police officers for their actions connected to the March 2020 raid. Garland said during a news conference that some of those officers’ alleged actions led to Taylor’s death.

Cameron received criticism for his investigation, with Taylor’s mother Tamika Palmer responding last week to Garland’s  announcement: “You (Daniel Cameron) don’t deserve to be where you are, and you need to go.”

Earlier in the weekend, Cameron said he envisioned himself as joining Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis as part of an “alliance of governors” if he wins the election.

Roberto Roldan | wfpl.org

Kentucky State Auditor Mike Harmon speaks at Fancy Farm 2022 in Graves County during his campaign for the 2023 GOP gubernatorial primary.

Harmon, the State Auditor, was introduced by Speaker Osborne as “a guy who started running for governor so long ago, he’s actually here for the second time as a candidate for the same office.”

Harmon took aim at Beshear, who was absent from the Fancy Farm proceedings for a second straight year, during his remarks. The governor had initially planned to go to Israel this month, though his plans changed as he shifted his focus to providing relief and rebuilding efforts following the flooding in eastern Kentucky

“Last year I thought he didn’t want to be the only Democrat on stage. But this year he originally planned to literally leave the country, for what I can only imagine was to avoid being on stage with Charles Booker,” Harmon said, referring to the liberal U.S. Senate hopeful.

Roberto Roldan | wfpl.org

Kentucky Rep. Savannah Maddox campaigns for the 2023 GOP gubernatorial nomination during Fancy Farm 2022.

Representative Savannah Maddox, a Republican candidate who leans farther right than many Republicans in the state House of Representatives, was the final speaker of the afternoon. Maddox was first elected to her northern Kentucky district in 2018.

In the backdrop of COVID emergency orders in 2020, she gained traction and support from so-called “liberty” conservatives for her stances opposing Beshear’s response to the pandemic.

Maddox announced during her time on stage that U.S. Rep. Thomas Massie had endorsed her in the primary. The Dry Ridge Republican was quick to deliver put-downs and roast her primary opponents.

“They are like the opposite of the Dos Equis beer guy. They’re the least interesting men in politics,” she said of her opponents. “And it’s great to see Daniel Cameron, after not seeing him anywhere for the past two years especially when he was in hideout mode during Andy Beshear’s lockdowns.”

Maddox sniped at Quarles by questioning his bona fides as a farmer.

“I have always wondered … what exactly does he grow on his farm and how does he keep his boots so shiny?” she said. “I’ve never seen a farmer with cleaner boots, and never any mud on his truck.”

Maddox echoed Quarles’ attack on Beshear, referencing vaccine and mask mandates and lockdowns during the coronavirus pandemic.

“I am the only gubernatorial candidate who, since the beginning, fought against lockdowns and mandates, the only candidate who publicly opposes red flag laws, and the only candidate with courage and experience to make difficult decisions,” Maddox said, making her case for governor.

Though former U.N. Ambassador Kelly Knight Craft has said she’s eyeing a potential run for governor, she has not made an official campaign announcement. Even still, Republican voters will have a crowd of candidates to choose from in the upcoming primary.

Beshear is currently unopposed for the Democratic nomination. The primary elections will take place in May 2023, and the General Election is on Nov. 7, 2023.

Divya is WFPL's Capitol Reporter.