Politics

After decades of Democratic-dominated Fancy Farm events, in a historically Democrat-dominated state, Republicans have found themselves in the catbird seat ahead of the annual political speaking event.

Democratic speakers will be outnumbered by more than two-to-one at this year’s Fancy Farm. That’s partly because last November, Republicans made history by taking the statewide offices of Governor, Auditor, Agriculture Commissioner and Secretary of State.

Only those who represent the citizens of Graves County are allowed to speak at the event. Though Democrats did win two statewide offices last year, neither Attorney General Andy Beshear nor Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes will be in attendance.

During Friday’s GOP “Night Before Fancy Farm” event, Republicans chided Democratic officials who declined invitations to the event on Saturday.

“[Democrats] used to dominate the place and they loved it every year and they said Republicans were chicken if we didn’t show up,” U.S. Sen. Rand Paul said.

Paul said that Democrats had “left the people of Western Kentucky.” He’s running for re-election to his seat against Lexington Mayor Jim Gray.

The western part of the state has become a political battleground ahead of the November elections when Kentucky Republicans will try to wrest control of the state House of Representatives from Democrats.

Democrats have held the House since 1921 and currently have 53 seats in the chamber, while Republicans have 47.

Speakers at the Republican event Friday urged the audience to support candidates running for the seats through campaign donations, bumper stickers and via social media.

“If you like what you’ve seen in the last seven months, we’re just getting warmed up,” said Gov. Matt Bevin, who was elected in November.

“You send me a House that matches our Senate, you don’t make me sit there with one arm tied behind my back for the next three and a half years, then we will do the things that you want done,” he said.

Bevin campaigned on a conservative platform last year, promising to sign right-to-work legislation, roll back Kentucky’s implementation of the Affordable Care Act and push for anti-abortion legislation.

But even with a narrow three-seat lead, the Democratic-led House has been an effective stumbling block for some of the governor’s legislative agenda.

“I’m tired of being in the minority,” said Rep. Steven Rudy, a Republican from Paducah running for re-election to a seat he has held since 2005.

In the past, Western Kentucky was a Democratic stronghold, but the region has leaned Republican in recent years. The 1st Congressional district seat was held exclusively by Democrats until the 1994, when it was taken over by Republican Rep. Ed Whitfield, who isn’t seeking re-election this year.

Former Agriculture Commissioner James Comer is running for the seat this year; he said Democrats had lost touch with the region.

“The Democrat Party does not represent the values of the working men and women and the conservative voters of Western Kentucky, and they’re realizing that and they’re switching parties now,” Comer said.

Comer is running against little-known veteran and Democrat Sam Gaskins, who will also be speaking at Fancy Farm.

“I honestly don’t know his name and I don’t think anybody in here does either,” Comer said on Friday. “I’m probably not going to mention his name because with 90 days to go, I mean, keep a good thing going.”

Gaskins, Gray and state House District 2 candidate Jesse Wright will be the only Democratic candidates speaking at Fancy Farm. Former North Carolina U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan will speak as a surrogate for Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. Ten Republicans will speak at the event.

The Fancy Farm political speaking event will start at 2:30 p.m. Central Standard Time and can be streamed on KET’s website.

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