FANCY FARM, Ky. – The Senate’s most important race descended on a tiny, no-stoplight town deep in western Kentucky on Saturday, as Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R) is set to clash with Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes before thousands of die-hard partisans.
With control of the Senate potentially hanging in the balance, the two candidates used the 134th annual Fancy Farm picnic as the unofficial kick-start to the final push of a general election that is now less than 100 days away. One of the most colorful of the nation’s annual political festivals, Fancy Farm serves as the campaign equivalent of candidates delivering less-than-10-minute speeches while being heckled and shouted at as if they were University of Kentucky basketball player making a foul shot looking into Louisville’s screaming student body.
The event has grown into a multi-day tour of the western end of the state, a critical corner that some campaign strategists say has a bloc of undecided voters. However, this event is entirely about firing up the partisans.
“She’s a new face for the status quo … she’s a new face for Barack Obama, she’s a new face for Harry Reid,” McConnell said of Grimes before more than 400 activists at the Graves County Republican breakfast, a few miles east of Fancy Farm, in a pre-event gathering. The crowd roared, “Go, Mitch!” at the thought of beating Grimes and her allies in Washington.
“Gridlock, it has real consequences,” Grimes shouted to a group of roughly 600 activists at the Marshall County Democratic bean supper Friday night, near the bank of the Tennessee River. Accusing the GOP leader of blocking a series of progressive measures on equal pay for female workers and increasing the minimum wage, she did a shout-and-call routine with the crowd to the tune of “Hit the Road, Jack,” substituting “Mitch” for "Jack."
For months McConnell, 72, and Grimes, 35, have been locked in a dead heat, offering the sharpest of contrasts, in terms of their personal biographies and political ideology, of any battleground Senate race in the nation. McConnell is a 30-year veteran of the Senate, steeped in its traditions and arcane procedures as well as a policy expert on the federal budget and foreign policy. His style is notably understated.
Grimes has competed in just one race, her 2011 victory to become Kentucky's secretary of state, and her appearances are filled with raw energy. She pulled the Marshall County crowd out of its chairs multiple times with her well-honed riff against McConnell. “Mitch McConnell, you’re fired! We’re ready to have a new hire,” she said.
She flubbed a new line in her 14-minute stump speech, about how Saturday’s Fancy Farm event has concession stands and she expects McConnell to deliver a concession speech in November.
She is meticulous, though, when it comes to staying on message. In a three-minute huddle with reporters after her talk, Grimes mentioned McConnell’s three-decade tenure in Washington a handful of times. That theme is central to her campaign, with signs touting “Our Future” with a picture of the much younger candidate front and center.
“It’s time for a change,” said Rex Sizemore, 62, a maintenance supervisor for the school system in Clay County who made the six-hour drive west for Saturday’s event. “We think we’ve got the candidate, and we’re here to back her.”
Republicans accuse Grimes of lacking a firm grasp of issues, beyond her well-delivered stump speech. Pressed after her talk about the unaccompanied minor crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border, Grimes avoided taking a position, decrying Republicans for not helping get a bill passed the Senate and distancing herself from Obama’s “blank check” proposal.
McConnell linked her campaign to the president and Senate majority leader, as well as their outside allies. “I’m proud of my enemies,” he declared to big cheers at Graves County High School.
Each candidate is raising enormous amounts of money -- more than $7 million combined in the second quarter of 2014 -- and yet spending by outside conservative and liberal groups may far exceed the candidates' spending. Senate Majority PAC, run by former advisers to Reid and other Senate Democrats, unveiled a new ad Saturday morning that picked up on Grimes’s theme of stressing McConnell’s lengthy tenure in the Senate, stressing how many times he had voted to raise his pay in 30 years.
With Republicans needing six seats to secure the majority in the chamber, Democrats believe that knocking off McConnell might cut the GOP off at the pass.
“This is a very big race,” McConnell said Saturday morning. "This is a race about the future of our country."