This column appeared in the July 28, 2016 edition of the Louisville Courier-Journal.
Scott Jennings is emcee for this year’s Fancy Farm picnic.
It’s that time of the year when the commonwealth’s politicos, journalists, and barbecue lovers prepare to trek down to the Jackson Purchase region of Western Kentucky for the annual Fancy Farm picnic, which takes place Saturday, Aug. 6, at the St. Jerome Catholic Church.
We are closing an epic four-year run at Fancy Farm that featured a series of hotly contested statewide elections and newcomers to the political scene. This year finds us in the middle of another race for the U.S. Senate, and with two constitutional officers fighting as much in courtrooms as they are in the court of public opinion.
It should make for a memorable Fancy Farm, which has continuously been a key stop for Kentucky’s politicians since 1880. It is a loud, hot, rowdy venue forcing politicians to bring their “A games” on the first Saturday in August.
Here’s what to expect from the invited speakers:
Gov. Matt Bevin (R) – Kentucky’s new chief magistrate has shaken up Frankfort and performed brilliantly in tackling the messes left behind by his predecessor, thrilling conservatives across the state. Bevin has banished a pervasive timidity that had taken hold on the first floor of the State Capitol and replaced it with a culture of fearlessness when it comes to using the full executive authority of his office. This has rankled Attorney General Andy Beshear and House Speaker Greg Stumbo, who are desperately trying to stop Bevin via the courts. To move even faster on his policy goals, Bevin could use the help of a Republican-controlled House of Representatives, and the picnic provides a great forum to make his case. There’s no pressure on Bevin this year and you can expect the impressive public speaker, like a leadoff hitter with a “two-ball-and-no strikes” count, to hammer out a solid speech.
Sen. Rand Paul (R) – Kentucky’s junior senator faces reelection after an unsuccessful run for president. Paul has quickly regained his local focus and just posted a much-improved fundraising quarter showing twice as much cash as his opponent. Paul delivers interesting messages at Fancy Farm and this year’s presidential race allows him to tee off on the perfect foil for Republicans – Hillary Clinton, who may run worse in Kentucky than Barack Obama.
Lexington Mayor Jim Gray (D) – The Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate will make his first appearance at the historic podium, and the chance to make a positive impression can’t come soon enough as whispers abound in political circles that Gray is in over his head. Gray needs a message that separates himself from his national party while holding liberal Democrats in his camp, a conundrum not solved by any Democrat running for U.S. Senate in Kentucky since 1992.
U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell (R) – Gray’s lack of name recognition makes it unlikely that the Senate Majority Leader will serve as attack dog for Rand Paul. The smart play is to ignore Gray and focus on Clinton, who provides endless fodder. McConnell should take a victory lap on Republican advances in Western Kentucky, given the positive trends in voter registration and Republican victories he helped engineer over the years.
Kentucky State House –Expect the tense battle for control to permeate speeches on both sides of the aisle. Republicans will argue they can move faster on economic development and critical reforms with full control, and Democrats will say that divided government produces solid compromises that reign in the worst impulses of Republicans to cut education and health care. The Kentucky State House, controlled by Democrats for the last 100 years, is the last southern legislative chamber not flying a GOP flag.
Presidential campaign – Both the Trump and Clinton campaigns have been invited to send surrogates, but Kentucky isn’t a target state for either and local speakers may handle the duties. Clinton’s closest ally in Kentucky is Secretary of State Alison Grimes, while Kentucky State Sen. Ralph Alvarado hit a home run for Donald Trump during his speech at the Republican National Convention. Both campaigns would do well to tap these two for surrogate work.
First Congressional District – This is the swan song for Congressman Ed Whitfield, a Fancy Farm fixture since his election to the U.S. House in 1994. Whitfield’s retirement makes way for Jamie Comer, the former Agriculture Commissioner who is all-but-certain to win the seat after his victory in the May Republican primary.
Not Attending: Attorney General Andy Beshear (D) – It has been a rough year for Beshear. He lost his top deputy to a federal indictment for bribery and another top staffer quit following a DUI arrest. Now he’s tangling in court with Gov. Bevin on a routine basis. There are some who want Beshear to follow in his father’s footsteps, but he’ll need better sledding to make a go of it in 2019. Skipping Fancy Farm is a missed opportunity for the younger Beshear.
If you go, say hello to picnic organizer Mark Wilson, one of the most affable guys in Western Kentucky. And think in advance about your answer to a key question: pork or mutton? The barbecue and carnival games support the church, so take cash and spend generously!
Scott Jennings previously served as an adviser to President George W. Bush and U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell. He is a partner at RunSwitch Public Relations, which has previously been a vendor to the University of Louisville Foundation. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @ScottJenningsKY.