A rowdy crowd packed into Fancy Farm’s covered pavilion Saturday — with many more standing outside in the rain — to hear Kentucky politicians jab, brag and crack jokes.
The main event was the first joint appearance of Republican U.S. Sen. Rand Paul and Democratic challenger Jim Gray.
Both candidates have run quiet races so far this campaign season, but sparks flew as Paul attacked Gray’s record as the mayor of Lexington, homing in on a development fiasco that has left a giant construction pit in the center of the city’s downtown.
“I heard the real reason that the big hole is still there, why he stopped work on the big hole, is because he heard there was coal in it,” Paul said.
The CentrePointe project was approved under previous Mayor Jim Newberry and has languished as developers have failed to nail down investors and begin construction in earnest.
Paul also accused Gray of “shopping for a job in politics” by running for Senate and remaining mayor of Lexington.
Then Gray attacked Paul for running for president while remaining in the Senate.
“Kentucky voters have a choice between a lifelong Kentuckian who’s built a family business around creating jobs or a candidate whose family business is all about running for president,” Gray said.
Rand Paul is the son of former U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, a Republican from Texas who made several presidential runs.
Gray also highlighted comments made by Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, who traded insults with Paul during the presidential campaign.
“The Donald went on to ask, ‘how does this guy get reelected in Kentucky, I don’t get it?’ Well Donald, I don’t get it either, Kentucky deserves a senator whose sole focus is Kentucky,” Gray said.
Democrats were heavily outnumbered on stage at the event, which used to be dominated by the party. Republicans also made up most of the audience, chanting slogans like “Stand With Rand” and “Lock Her Up” — a reference to Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton that gained prominence during the Republican National Convention.
James Comer, Republican candidate for the 1st Congressional District, said Democrats had lost touch with voters in the region.
“The values and principles of the national Democrats are not the same values of the blue-collar workers and the socially conservative voters of Western Kentucky,” said Comer, the former state commissioner of agriculture, during his speech.
Comer is running against political newcomer Sam Gaskins, a Democrat from Hopkinsville. Gaskins delivered a short, fiery speech in which he scolded the Republican side of the stage for not doing enough to help the coal industry.
“I’m going to tell you now I’m going to run over whoever tries to tear up Kentucky,” Gaskins said.
Notable absences from the event included Attorney General Andy Beshear and Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, both Democrats who declined their invitations to spend time with family.
Republican Gov. Matt Bevin pounced on the opportunity to roast Beshear, his rival in a string of lawsuits over the scope of the governor’s powers, and former Gov. Steve Beshear, who has criticized Bevin for his rollback of the Affordable Care Act in Kentucky.
“Do we really miss papa bear and baby bear up here, spewing their anger?” Bevin asked, referring to the Beshears. A state trooper then delivered a “summons” to Bevin, who joked he was now being sued by the attorney general for improperly quoting nursery rhymes.
After the speeches, Bevin said this year’s festivities were “less nasty and personal” because fewer Democrats were in attendance.
House Speaker Greg Stumbo, a Democrat from Prestonsburg, boycotted the event, saying he disapproved that Fancy Farm organizers selected Republican operative Scott Jennings as the emcee.