In the era of consultants, high-definition television and targeting advertising, it sometimes seems like shoe-leather politics is a dying art. But in one little slice of Kentucky, local and state-level politicians don't just meet their constituents face-to-face; they take the stage facing a wall of boos, heckles and taunts. And it's all part of business as usual.
Gov. Matt Bevin (R) was booed loudly by supporters of Libertarian nominee Gary Johnson when he urged voters to pick conservative candidates in November. Sen. Rand Paul (R) spoke over chants of "what have you done?" And Democratic congressional candidate Sam Gaskins calmly reflected, "Y'all can cuss me all you want. I don't care."
That's how things go down at the Fancy Farm Picnic in Fancy Farm, Ken. The picnic, where huge portions of barbecue are served up alongside speeches from political candidates — senators, state representatives and even the governor — is a critical campaign trail appearance for Kentucky politicians. And unlike most staged appearances, the candidates face their supporters and their detractors, which come from three distinct groups: Republicans, Democrats — and as the emcee of this year's picnic joked, registered Democrats who vote Republican.
But while there were Democrats in the crowd at this year's picnic, there were none to be found on the list of speakers. In fact, there are only two Democrats who currently hold statewide office in Kentucky, a state that used to be a stronghold of what some who still live there call "conservative Democrats." Locals even referred to it as "the Democratic Rock of Gibraltar."
Where did rural Democrats go? Filmmakers Louis Alvarez, Andy Kolker and Paul Stekler explored the question in "Gibraltar May Tumble," the latest in a series of video postcards from across the country that The Fix has been running since July.
The filmmakers use the Fancy Farm Picnic to examine a broader issue in American politics: the disappearance of rural Democrats. At both the state and presidential level, there's been a huge swing in the way rural voters cast their ballots even since the 1990s, as Newt Gingrich's "Contract with America" set off a fresh wave of Democratic defections.
Part of that shift came with right-to-work legislation and the waning power of unions; part coincided with the rise in popularity of the Democratic party in urban centers. While Kentucky still has a Democratic state legislature, it's only by a slim 5-seat margin, and Republican pickups in rural districts could close or eliminate that gap in November.
As for Fancy Farm, locals wonder if the town's old nickname even still applies. And while some remember the Democratic stronghold it once was, they're now asking themselves if Gibraltar has already tumbled.
"Gibraltar May Tumble" is just one in the series "Political Postcards from the Great Divide." You can see the rest here.