The tiny town of Fancy Farm, Kentucky looks like one of the quietest places on Earth for 364 days of the year.
But on the first Saturday in August it is a raucous and must-attend destination for politicians seeking office in the Commonwealth and their rowdy campaigns and supporters descend on the grounds of a Catholic church in the Graves County community for a day-long political event unique to Kentucky.
An open-air facility hosts a stage whereupon the candidates make their cases in short and often playfully vicious speeches. It was thought that 2013 would be on an off-year for the annual Fancy Farm picnic since there are no elections in Kentucky. But with Senator Mitch McConnell on the ballot in 2014 and two challengers emerging in recent weeks, from both parties, what was expected to be a low-key affair not only brought in 12,000 attendees but also scores of national media.
McConnell's campaign to win a sixth six-year term in the United States Senate will be among the top races to watch in the midterm elections next year and Democratic Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes hopes to pull off an upset next November while Republican businessman Matt Bevin hopes to end McConnell's chances in the May primary.
Each took the stage with scathing rhetoric on Saturday as the crowd, seated in deliberate division in the stands based on political affiliation, shouted back at them, their passions buoyed by an afternoon of lunching on Fancy Farm's famous pork and mutton barbecue sandwiches.
McConnell spoke first and threw the opening punch, a jab at Grimes's father, Jerry Lundergan, a former chairman of the Kentucky Democratic Party.
"Before I get started, I want to say how nice it is to see Jerry Lundergan back in the game," McConnell said. "Like th eloyal 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, so he sent a check to Anthony Weiner!"
Weiner is the embattled former Congressman and current mayoral candidate in New York City most recently in the headlines for a series of lewd images he sent to females.
McConnell's sharpened political teeth then clenched on to his favorite foil, President Barack Obama, an unpopular figure in Kentucky.
"Over the next fifteen months we're going to decide what kind of America we want to have and 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?"
"Every liberal in America is out to beat us next year," McConnell continued, throwing out the red meat words that his hungry supporters came to Fancy Farm to dine upon: Obamacare, San Francisco, Martha's Vineyard, (House Minority Leader) Nancy Pelosi, and (Senate Majority Leader) Harry Reid.
Democratic supporters in the crowd continued their chants of "Ditch Mitch" throughout the speech.
"Look at all these liberals who come down here to push me around," McConnell said. "Theyre not gonna get away with it are they?"
His supporters assured him they wouldn't and the two sides of the crowd had battled it out all afternoon with dueling chants of "Go Mitch, Go!" and "Go Mitch, Go Home!"
Grimes, serving her first term as Secretary of State after being elected in 2011, was prepared to punch back.
"There's a reason Mitch McConnell is disliked not just by the voters of Kentucky but by the entire United States," she said. "Because there is a disease of dysfunction in Washington, DC. He has left Kentucky and its citizens behind and as long as he remains in DC, DC will stand for dysfunctional capital."
"After years of being the leader of the Republican Party, GOP has come to stand for gridlock, obstruction, and partisanship."
Grimes targeted McConnell as an obstructionist and promised that she would be more willing than he to reach across the partisan aisle.
"If doctors told McConnell that he had a kidney stone, he'd refuse to pass it!"
McConnell and Grimes got support from other high profile members of their respective parties who also took to the podium.
Rep. Ed Whitfield and Agriculture Commissioner James Comer lobbed barbs at Grimes and the President.
"If you oppose Barack Obama, let's send Mitch McConnell back to the United States Senate and Ed Whitfield back to the Congress," Whitfield shouted.
Comer, a possible candidate for governor in 2015, continued the theme. "Do we care about small business in this state? Do we want the family farm to survive? Do we want coal to keep the lights on? Then we must stop Obamacare, big government, and job-killing legislation," Comer said. "We're gonna be all hands on deck in 2014 and we're gonna win that senate race."
"But we're not going to stop there," he continued. "In 2015 we have to elect a new governor in this state, so we're not going to have time for any fancy vacations (Comer sniped at Grimes for going to Martha's Vineyard for a fundraiser and other Democrats who travel outside of the region for recreation). We'll be going from Pikeville to Paducah and from Florence to Falmouth. We are going to make Kentucky competitive."
Comer is currently the only Republican to hold a statewide constitutional office in Kentucky.
Attorney General Jack Conway and Auditor Adam Edelen stood up for Grimes.
"After thirty years, what has Mitch McConnell done for Kentucky?," Conway asked. "Building his own wealth, pandering to the special interests. Who does he think he works for? His priority is keeping his job instead of worrying about your jobs. Kentucky, hear me loud and clear. You have a choice. If you are sick of all the bickering, partisanship, and Washington getting nothing done for you, then you must vote for Alison Lundergan Grimes!"
Edelen, like Conway, is also a possible 2015 candidate for governor but kept his focus on Grimes's behalf Saturday.
"We have two kinds of senators in Kentucky," Edelen said. "One that's out of town and one that's out of time."
Sen. Rand Paul was not at Fancy Farm.
"McConnell regularly talks about how much power he has but for those one thousand workers at USEC (in Paducah), his power meant nothing. For the 10,000 people being moved off base at Ft. Knox, his power meant nothing. For 3,000 coal miners who lost jobs in the last eighteen months, his power meant nothing."
"If McConnell won't use his power to fight for our jobs, we ought to use our power to make sure he doesn't get to keep his!"
Louisville businessman Matt Bevin hopes to make sure McConnell loses his job, too, and his challenging him in May's Republican primary. McConnell did not stick around for Bevin's turn at the mic, leaving right after Grimes spoke.
"McConnell doesn't want people to know they have an alternative," Bevin said, flanked by his wife and nine children.
"The people of Kentucky have had enough of you fighting desperately to keep your job while doing nothing to help keep jobs in Kentucky. It's unacceptable. We've had enough."
While Bevin is considered by political pundits to be a tea party candidate, he assured the crowd at Fancy Farm that he is running neither from the right nor the left of McConnell. "I intend to run straight over Mitch McConnell and into the Senate," he said.
Grimes also faces a primary challenge in May from Owensboro Democrat Ed Marksberry who basically conceded at Fancy Farm saying that he hopes Grimes raises enough money to compete with McConnell.
When the first Saturday in August of 2014 rolls around, a lot of these faces are expected to return to the podium and at that point the Senate election would be just two months away.
Story & photos by Michael Monks, editor & publisher of The River City News
Photos from Fancy Farm: