This piece originally appeared in the Louisville Courier Journal on July 29, 2015.
By: Scott Jennings
The last time Kentucky’s political collective descended on Fancy Farm, the U.S. Senate race between Mitch McConnell and Alison Grimes was in full bloom, with both candidates and their respective apparatuses already spending freely. Last time around, Fancy Farm felt like the beginning of the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl rather than the kickoff.
This year, another statewide campaign – this time for governor – is under way, but you’d hardly know it. The combatants have barely come out of the locker room for the coin flip.
The race between Republican Matt Bevin and Democrat Jack Conway has been sleepy, with neither campaign generating much news since the May primary. Conway and his allies have released a couple of ads, while the Republican Governor’s Association (RGA) has unleashed attack ads on behalf of Bevin. The RGA ads look a lot like the pro-McConnell spots that helped tank Grimes in 2014, which surely must worry Conway’s allies.
The political environment continues to favor Bevin and the GOP. Kentucky remains decidedly opposed to President Barack Obama and those who support his agenda, and polling in the race so far has shown Republicans from top to bottom running ahead of or even with their Democratic counterparts. A new Bluegrass Poll comes later this week.
We are in for a short campaign, hopefully jumpstarted this weekend in Western Kentucky at the annual Fancy Farm Political Picnic at St. Jerome’s Catholic Church. Here is what to expect from the key speakers:
Matt Bevin – His previous appearance came in 2013, just after he launched his bid against McConnell in the U.S. Senate primary. Bevin is a talented public speaker and used those skills in the gubernatorial primary to best his opponents. His mission Saturday is simple – paint Conway as an extension of Obama, and present himself as someone with a grasp of how conservative principles can improve state government. This platform gives him a chance to do something he has not had to do before – talk to general election voters who have no idea who he is or what he stands for. The assembled partisans matter less than the likely voters who will view the speech coverage later.
Jack Conway – The Attorney General has appeared at Fancy Farm many times, and it gives the Louisville resident a chance to talk about his Western Kentucky roots. Conway once stumbled here, clumsily cursing during a speech in an attempt to sound tough (picnic organizers were not pleased). Conway’s tenure as Attorney General is now largely defined by the issue of gay marriage; he needs it to be something else. The challenge for Conway is to convince conservative Democrats to stick with their party in November without depressing his liberal Louisville base, a Gordian knot for Democrats in Kentucky these days.
U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell – Nobody is better at drawing bright-line contrasts between Democrats and Republicans than McConnell, and you can bet he’ll lay out the choice in November in unambiguous terms. McConnell, the new Senate Majority Leader, would be well within his rights to take a victory lap for getting the Senate working again, as the institution had all but ground to a halt under the grip of Nevada’s Harry Reid. McConnell is not a flashy orator, but every sentence is well-crafted and packs a punch in this setting. McConnell’s Fancy Farm speeches are calibrated for posterity, not instant gratification.
Gov. Steve Beshear – Kentucky’s outgoing governor will deliver his last Fancy Farm speech, passing the torch to Conway and his son, Andy Beshear, the Democratic nominee for Attorney General. Beshear’s legacy is fully wrapped up in his implementation of Obamacare, which still doesn’t poll well even as Beshear maintains decent approval numbers. He will surely want to deliver a legacy-focused speech but must be careful not to play into the Republican strategy of defining Conway as an Obama acolyte. As a stunt to kick off his speech in 2014, Beshear took a selfie on-stage with McConnell, proclaiming his desire to preserve the memory of the senior senator’s last Fancy Farm. As it turns out, it is McConnell who will outlast Beshear on the Fancy Farm stage.
2016 U.S. Senate Race Implications – Secretary of State Grimes and State Auditor Adam Edelen are both in tight races for re-election, and both are mentioned as possible U.S. Senate candidates in 2016 against Rand Paul. Grimes is trying to shake off horrific image problems from her loss to McConnell, and Edelen is hoping an anti-Democratic wave doesn’t sweep him away with the rest of the ticket. Paul is not appearing this year, opting to campaign for president in New Hampshire.
Fancy Farm Rookie Speakers – Republicans: Jenean Hampton (Lt. Governor); Whitney Westerfield (Attorney General); Steven Knipper (Secretary of State); Ryan Quarles (Agriculture Commissioner); Allison Ball (Treasurer). Democrats: Sannie Overly (Lt. Governor); Beshear (Attorney General); Jean-Marie Lawson (Agriculture Commissioner); Rick Nelson (Treasurer).
If you go – Say hello to picnic organizer Mark Wilson, who does a tremendous job organizing this important event, and try some of the 20,000 pounds of pork and muttonpicnic goers will eat. Insider tip: if you are there on Friday, snag a cheeseburger at Droopy’s.
Scott Jennings is a former adviser to President George W. Bush and U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell. He is a partner at RunSwitch Public Relations and can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @ScottJenningsKY. The online version of this column contains hyperlinked citations.