FANCY FARM, Ky. – The Senate’s most important campaign devolved into a literal shouting match Saturday as Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R) and Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes shared a stage — but little else — before roughly 5,000 of the state’s most die-hard partisans.
Equal parts church barbecue and political convention, the 134th annual Fancy Farm Picnic in this tiny, no-stoplight town in western Kentucky served as the kick-start for the midterm election that is less than 100 days away.
The candidates and their surrogates traded insults as thousands of liberal and conservative activists cheered and jeered their every word, despite a heavenly plea for comity from the local archbishop.
“Thanks to you, D.C. stands for ‘Doesn’t Care,’ ” Grimes, the Kentucky secretary of state, said during her seven-minute remarks, pointing to the GOP leader.
In return, McConnell compared Grimes’s two years of experience in the lower-level statewide office to the path of Barack Obama, who launched his 2008 presidential campaign after two years in the Senate. “Sound familiar?” McConnell asked dryly.
One of the most colorful of the nation’s annual political festivals, the Fancy Farm Picnic invites candidates on stage to deliver short speeches while being heckled as if they were a University of Kentucky basketball player making a foul shot looking into the University of Louisville’s screaming student body. It is technically a fundraiser for the local Catholic parish but has turned into a command performance for aspiring Bluegrass State politicians. This year’s event drew a record crowd, with the Senate race here becoming the highest-profile campaign in the November midterm elections.
After 30 years in office, McConnell is deeply unpopular here and runs the risk of becoming only the second Senate leader to lose reelection in the past 60 years. Yet if he can hold off his less-experienced challenger, McConnell stands an even chance of becoming the next majority leader as the constellation of states with tight Senate races tilts in the Republican direction.
The unusual nature of Fancy Farm — something akin to each party holding a convention in the same open-air barn — compels speakers to boil down their pitch to the most partisan parts to try to win the loudest cheers from their activist supporters. There are no appeals to middle-of-the-road voters, as there aren’t many who make the trek to this far-off corner of the state.
In that regard, the event serves to crystallize campaign themes. To McConnell, it is all about becoming the majority leader and serving as a counter to Obama, who is deeply unpopular in these parts.
McConnell’s stump speech regularly cites the president’s “war on coal” through the latest regulations from the Environmental Protection Agency, telling his supporters Saturday there was one way to halt them: “That’s to change the Senate and to make me the majority leader.”
As McConnell’s speech progressed through a litany of bad signs for the U.S. economy, Grimes’s supporters loudly chanted: “What about you?”
Her campaign is based largely on McConnell’s age, 72, and his time in office, particularly as a lead obstacle to Obama’s agenda: “Thirty years is long enough. Gridlock has consequences.”
While she avoids detailed policy specifics on most national issues, Grimes is not running as a conservative or even centrist Democrat. Her campaign is deeply tied to the national Democratic agenda on populist causes, including raising the minimum wage, supporting equal-pay-for-equal-work legislation to benefit female workers and protecting labor organizing rights.
The Fancy Farm event also highlighted what is the sharpest contrast of any battleground Senate race in the nation, particularly in terms of personal style. McConnell is steeped in Senate traditions and arcane procedures and is an expert on the federal budget and foreign policy. His style is incredibly understated.
Grimes has run just one race, her 2011 victory to become secretary of state, and her appearances are filled with raw energy.
“Thirty-five is my age,” she roared. “That’s also Senator McConnell’s approval rating.”
Each stump speech focuses heavily on female issues, particularly the pay equity legislation that Republicans filibustered this year. “The barriers for women have not all been lowered, because you are standing in the way,” she said, pointing to McConnell to her left.
Republicans say she is a policy lightweight whose inexperience over time will tilt the race in his favor.
Pressed after a rally Friday evening 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 in the Senate and distancing herself from Obama’s “blank check” $3.7 billion proposal.
Her supporters do not seem to care and have embraced the throw-the-bums-out message. “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.”
McConnell is embracing his stature in Washington, declaring that without him Obama’s EPA will create even more restrictions on coal. Betting against Obama is his central plank, and supporters say that the fewer than 10 percent of voters who remain undecided dislike the president so much that they’ll stick with McConnell.
“We’re no happier today with that president than we were at his reelection in 2012,” Linda Thompson, 63, said after a morning McConnell rally at nearby Graves County High School.
Aware of his less energetic appearance, McConnell is using Rand Paul (R-Ky.), the 51-year-old freshman senator with a libertarian bent and an appeal to younger voters, as a surrogate campaigner. At the morning event, Paul touted his work with McConnell on inserting language in the farm bill to increase the production of hemp, a crop that could prove bountiful for Kentucky farmers.
After McConnell spoke at Fancy Farm, Paul took the stage and delivered a poetry reading that began with “there once was a woman from Kentucky,” drawing laughter from his GOP supporters as he recalled Grimes’s fundraising trips to Hollywood and Washington, where Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) co-hosted the event.
“When she takes the first vote for Harry Reid, she kills any chance of resurrecting the Kentucky coal industry,” Paul said.
Grimes made clear that she did not want to let the race drift into a national referendum on Obama and Reid.
“This race,” she said, again turning to McConnell, “is between you and me and the people of Kentucky.”