Kentucky’s longest-serving U.S. senator, Mitch McConnell, waited for the chants of “We want Mitch!” to die down Saturday afternoon. He smiled coyly at his Republican fans, then launched into talking about the 2014 Senate race, a run for what would be his sixth term. He didn’t talk about his opponent, Alison Lundergan Grimes. Instead, he attacked her father.
“Before I get started, I would like to say how nice it is to see Jerry Lundergan back in the game,” McConnell said, referring to Lundergan’s years as the Bluegrass State’s Democratic Party chairman. “Like the loyal Democrat he is, he’s taking orders from the Obama campaign on how to run his daughter’s campaign. They told him to make a pitch on the Internet for the women’s vote, and he sent a check to Anthony Weiner.”
McConnell told the crowd gathered at the 133rd annual Fancy Farm Picnic — a quirky church fundraiser in rural western Kentucky that has evolved into a required political campaign stop — that they will have to make a decision in the coming year: “We’re going to decide what kind of America we want to have, what kind of Kentucky we want to have. There are only two answers to this question: Barack Obama’s vision for America — or Kentucky’s.”
And with that, McConnell laid the groundwork for what will likely be one of the most intense, expensive and nastiest Senate campaigns in Kentucky history. McConnell has been in Congress since 1985 and is now the Senate’s top-ranking Republican, with a reputation of being confident and uncompromising. Grimes is a lifelong Kentuckian from a politically connected family who serves as Kentucky’s secretary of state. For most of Grimes’s life, McConnell has been in the Senate.
But in that time, McConnell has seen his popularity in Washington and back home slowly erode, even within his party. This is especially true with Republican senators who were swept into office by the tea party movement and have taken strong stances against the established party leadership. Prominent conservative groups have been slow to offer their endorsements of McConnell, though he has the strong support of fellow Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, a tea party favorite.
“The truth is, there is a reason that Senator McConnell is disliked, not only by the voters of Kentucky but by the entire United States, and that is there is a disease of dysfunction in Washington, D.C. And after 30 years, Senator McConnell is at the center of it,” Grimes said in a speech that was at times difficult to hear over booing from McConnell supporters and chants of “We want Mitch.”
Republican Party leaders are trying to get voters to not think of this as a battle of McConnell vs. Grimes. Instead, they are pitching this as a battle of McConnell vs. the Obama administration. Some of the McConnell supporters in the crowd Saturday afternoon carried signs that showed President Obama’s face on one side and Grimes’s on the other. They spun the signs around and around, making the two faces seem as one.
This is a state that largely votes Republican and where many have opposed the government’s new health-care law, casually called Obamacare. And it’s a state where coal mining is a massive industry, one that has long considered itself under attack by Democrats and government regulators. Some picnickers wore large white buttons reading “I [heart] coal.” Others wore black stickers proclaiming: “Coal. Guns. Freedom.”
On Saturday, a conservative political action committee took out a half-page, full-color advertisement in a local newspaper that showed Grimes standing between Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.). In the ad, Grimes is wearing a T-shirt that states “I’m with stupid” and shows an arrow pointing at Reid. The headline is a partial Reid quote: “Coal makes us sick.” The advertisement urges: “Defend our mines! Say ‘NO’ to Grimes!”
Grimes has tried her best to distance herself from Obama, instead promoting support from former president Bill Clinton, a close family friend. Her first speeches on the campaign trail have focused largely on criticisms of the Obama administration’s “attack” on the coal industry. She also has pointed out flaws in Obamacare that need fixing. Her platform focuses on job creation, strengthening Medicare and Social Security and cutting federal spending.
McConnell “has said that I am a cheerleader for our president, but I am as much of a cheerleader for our president as our senior senator is a Chippendale dancer,” Grimes said Saturday morning after a breakfast with local county Democrats. “I don’t agree with the president on everything. I’ve said that time and time again.”
The Fancy Farm Picnic isn’t just any political event. Heckling is encouraged. So are costumes, although the crowd included just a couple tea party members in full Revolutionary gear, and one flashy Uncle Sam. Politicians are lucky if they can get one point across to the voters in front of them. Instead, they spend most of the time roasting their opponents or members of the other party, to the delight of the politically charged audience. There are a few rules: No profanity. Nothing racist or sexist. No bullhorns or amplifiers.
“Be considerate of the people around you,” the moderator begged. “This isn’t the World Cup.”
Organizers say this year’s turnout was one of the largest they have seen in years. Hundreds showed up, most wearing T-shirts for “Mitch” or “Alison.” Many were out-of-towners who could not name most of the local officials sitting on the stage, a group that included a mayor from a nearby town, judges, law enforcement officials and the coroner. Dozens arrived early to stake out seats in the open-air pavilion where the political speeches are held. Meanwhile, the locals were off touring a newly renovated historic elementary school, purchasing barbecued pork and mutton by the pound, filling in bingo cards or playing carnival games, including one that involved throwing dimes into teacups.
McConnell and Grimes were the biggest attractions Saturday afternoon — and the crowd quickly thinned out as soon as they finished speaking. McConnell and his wife also disappeared before two additional Senate candidates addressed the lingering crowd: Ed Marksberry, a Democrat who has sued the Kentucky Democratic Party for its early and strong support of Grimes, and Matt Bevin, a wealthy Louisville businessman who has gained tea party support and will likely challenge McConnell in May’s primary.
Bevin, an Army veteran, has spent most of his career in the financial industry, but he recently turned around his family’s struggling bell-making business that’s based in Connecticut. Bevin’s supporters, far outnumbered in the crowd, rang bells emblazoned with the words “Let Freedom Ring.”
Grimes gave Bevin a warm welcome, asking the crowd to applaud the man who would challenge McConnell. And Bevin took a pass at criticizing Grimes, saying that there would be more than enough time for that next year in the general election. Bevin then laid into McConnell, who wasn’t there to hear it.
“Why are you leaving already, with all of your supporters?” Bevin asked. “Apparently, the bus wants to beat the crowds. But the fact of the matter is, Mitch McConnell doesn’t want people to actually hear that they have an alternative.”