Fancy Farm's been serving up spicy barbecue, political barbs since 1880

Can politicians stand the heat at Fancy Farm?
Can politicians stand the heat at Fancy Farm?
Posted at 10:50 AM, Aug 06, 2016
and last updated 2016-08-06 10:52:22-04

Eight years ago, when gas prices hovered around $4 a gallon and the Republican battle cry from Sen. John McCain and Sarah Palin was "Drill, Baby, Drill," campaign operatives for current Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell went to work at the Fancy Farm church picnic in the tiny southwestern Kentucky hamlet not far from the Tennessee border.

Despite temperatures in the mid-90s, a handful of McConnell's most fervent supporters draped themselves in flowing white robes, covered their heads with what passed for traditional Arab headscarves and their faces with costume-shop beards. Just in case anyone needed any further explanation, signs identified them as members of "Arab Sheiks for Bruce Lunsford," who was running against McConnell.

McConnell's campaign had labeled Lunsford and other Democrats as opponents of oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and offshore of the U.S. coast.

And when Lunsford delivered his five-minute stump speech at Fancy Farm, some of his most wildly enthusiastic support came from those "Arab sheiks."

The tongue-in-cheek political theater was calculated to drive home the debatable theory that Democrats who opposed domestic oil exploration were, in effect, shipping millions of U.S. dollars to the Middle East and driving up gas prices for millions of Americans.

If those theatrics sound a bit over the top or an unworthy tactic for someone running for high office, it was just business as usual at Fancy Farm. It's where the first weekend of each August is devoted to the St. Jerome Fancy Farm Picnic and the Saturday of that weekend is dedicated to old-fashioned, down-home and sometimes nasty partisan politics.

This weekend should be no exception at the church fundraiser, where admission is free for barbecue, bingo and political barbs.

The 136th picnic traces its roots to 1880 and President Rutherford B. Hayes, whose administration was responsible, in part, for Reconstruction after the Civil War.

Public notice of that first picnic in the Mayfield Monitor promised a picnic, barn dance and gander pulling, a "blood sport" that never ended well for the goose. (Without getting into the gory details, gander pulling makes cockfighting look like a leisurely game of croquet with grandma on Sunday afternoon.)

Top elected officials in Kentucky -- as well as those who hope to attain that status -- will be on hand in the tiny community (population 458) Saturday, along with surrogates for presidential candidates Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton and Libertarian Gary Johnson.

Over the years, an abundance of A-list politicians have made their pitches at Fancy Farm.

Former Alabama governor and segregationist George Wallace appeared in 1975 in his unsuccessful effort to set the stage for winning the Democratic nomination for president in 1976.

Al Gore, running as Bill Clinton's choice for vice president in 1992, voiced a familiar theme when he promised that Democrats would deliver change to the country while the first President Bush only offered "more of the same."

The one new wrinkle this year is that the presidential candidates were given formal invitations to send a representative, according to Mark Wilson, who chairs the committee that lines up the speakers and said he has been volunteering at the picnic since he was "old enough to walk."

While some organizations might ask candidates to appear and then settle for an appearance by a representative, Wilson said Fancy Farm and the St. Jerome parish realize their limitations.

"Our little town could not handle the crowd (if Trump and Clinton appeared)," said Wilson, adding that he expects upwards of 10,000 people to attend the festival without an appearance by the presidential hopefuls.

Wilson acknowledged that sometimes-raucous exchanges between the speakers could be challenging for some of them.

"The candidates are rough on each other and they have to expect it to be a little rowdy," Wilson said. "One of the things we're trying to do is cut out the non-stop choreographed chanting" that had drowned out some speakers in the past.

Neville Blakemore, a Louisville businessman and the vice-chair of the Kentucky Democratic Party, said he's never spoken at Fancy Farm. But he said he felt like he was paying homage at a hallowed, historic site when he climbed up on the stage during one visit to Fancy Farm.

"Politics are rough and tumble -- a bare-knuckled sport -- and Fancy Farm is one of the last places that you can find this," said Blakemore, who will miss the event this year because it conflicts with a family vacation.

He pointed out that both parties sandwich fundraisers around Fancy Farm in hopes of attracting contributions from people who may journey to Western Kentucky just once a year.

Democrats scheduled four events for Thursday, Friday and Saturday near Fancy Farm. Republicans have planned a GOP pep rally that benefits the party in Marshall, Calloway and Trigg counties on Friday.

After entrusting the gavel to a left-leaning master of ceremonies last year, Saturday's event will be anchored by Scott Jennings, an unabashed conservative who is a principal in RunSwitch Public Relations in Louisville.

Jennings has played key roles in McConnell's last three Senate campaigns and knows plenty of details about the appearance by the "Arab Sheiks for Bruce Lunsford" in 2008.

At a time when the presidential campaign seems to have devolved into a bitter, cruel and mean-spirited cage match between two candidates who are loathed by millions of Americans, Jennings said he hopes Fancy Farm speakers deliver clever, memorable zingers rather than hate-filled diatribes.

"I want to set a tone that says, 'Hey, we can joke with each other without it being too mean or too tense' -- that's a good tone for the day," Jennings said. "You hope in this world that you can laugh at yourself and we can all laugh at each other... that helps stoke the overall feeling of camaraderie that I think has been on a severe decline for a number of years.

"Maybe it means that Republicans and Democrats will hate each other a little less, which I think most voters would agree is a good thing," Jennings said.

In the opinion of Jennings, the critical state-wide race this year is between U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, who is running for a second term after dropping out of the Republican race for the presidential nomination, and Lexington Mayor Jim Gray, who faces a tough race in a state where Republicans usually win.

Political observers say Paul's first appearance at Fancy Farm established him as a major player in Kentucky politics and was a factor in his successful race to win a U.S. Senate seat.

But Paul hasn't received a free pass at Fancy Farm.

Democrats set up a booth on the picnic grounds that was identified as "Rand Paul's Waffle House" where the Senator was accused of "Flippin' Positions 24/7".

Both Paul and Gray are scheduled to speak Saturday.

The long list of speakers also includes McConnell and Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin, who lost to McConnell two years ago in the Republican primary for the Senate seat that McConnell has held since 1985.

Although he has criticized the Fancy Farm format for bringing out the worst in Kentucky politics, when he prepared to launch his primary campaign in 2013, Bevin didn't pull any punches.

"Mitch McConnell is known as mud-slinging Mitch, because the only thing he has to run on is destroying other people," Bevin was quoted as saying. "There is nothing in his 30-year history of voting that he's proud enough of to actually run on."

Bevin also ripped into McConnell for not being aggressive in his opposition to President Obama's health care law.

"Be a man, stand up and put your money where your mouth is," Bevin said.

Bevin also has been sliced and diced at the event. His predecessor in the governor's mansion, Steve Beshear, ripped into him last August, a little more than three months before the election that Bevin won handily.

Then-governor Beshear said at Fancy Farm that he was just quoting anti-Bevin Republicans who had described Bevin as "an East Coast con man and a pathological liar." Out in the crowd, Democrats held up cardboard signs that showed a Pinocchio-like nose that projected out from Bevin's face.

Although it's tough to make any absolute correlation between a Fancy Farm performance and the outcome of an election, several people said a poor showing at the picnic could damage a campaign.

"It can have some impact on the outcome," said Paul Whalen, an attorney who is a member of the Kentucky Democratic State Executive Committee and former chair for the Democrats in Campbell County. "(The) 2009 Fancy Farm performance of (former Kentucky Attorney General) Jack Conway (where he used foul language) was the beginning of Conway's end in the 2010 Senate race."

Jennings and another political insider who didn't want his name used also recalled then-U.S. Rep. Scotty Baesler's Fancy Farm speech in 1998, when the normally reserved congressman tried a fire-and-brimstone approach. It backfired badly, and film of Baesler's speech, in which he appeared to be a bit unhinged, was used in TV ads by Sen. Jim Bunning, who won re-election.

At a time when the country seems to be bitterly divided at the national level, Jennings hopes for the best on Saturday.

"Fancy Farm is one of the last places in the political universe where you can be as creative and colorful as your mind will allow," Jennings said.

If things go well, the political commentary will be clever and funny, calculated to "get a chuckle rather than rip somebody's throat out," he said.