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Confederates, Communists, & Candidates: Fancy Farm is Kentucky at Its Best & Worst

"Because they're not Democrats anymore," a man in a black leather vest said pointing his finger in the direction of another man, his other hand full of stickers supporting a Republican statewide candidate, his voice serious and intense. "They're Communists." The other man agreed with an mm-hmm and a disbelieving nod, and they both turned their attention towards the St. Jerome Parish picnic grounds where thousands crowded with political positions of their own.

Just a dozen or so feet away, a small group of men and women, some wearing sunglasses and hats, proudly waved Confederate battle flags, urging others to "Save Jeff Davis", a reference to a growing chorus calling for the removal of the statue in Frankfort's Capitol rotunda where the only president of the Confederate States of America, a Kentuckian, is honored. "It's Your Call Governor", one sign read. "We Have Rights And We Vote", read another. Some of the guys wore bandanas sporting the spirit of the Stars & Bars, and others wore leather biker vests featuring symbols cut from similar cloth.

"Matt Bevin is an East Coast Con Man", read a sign carried around by a young student, warning the crowd about the Republican nominee for governor. "Jack Conway Stands for Killing Innocent Babies", was the message on a sign hoisted above the crowd by a man taking a shot at the Democratic nominee for governor.

Signs, images, placards, stickers, buttons, and even a makeshift pedicure station (a dig at the Republican candidate for attorney general who is being criticized in Democratic ads for allegedly missing court as a prosecutor in favor of having his feet attended to), all trying to curry favor with the crowd for one candidate or one issue, or against another candidate or issue. Though it's a Catholic church picnic on the grounds shared by an old church and newer grade school, the messages are often hateful and deliberately mean-spirited.

But just don't cuss. 

Saying the word "bitch" six years ago, as in I'm one tough son of a bitch, is still a catalyst for verbal jabs towards Conway, who said that at the event in 2009.

This is Fancy Farm, the front porch at the center of the political universe for one day every year, in the farthest reach of western Kentucky, in the middle of seemingly endless farmland, just outside of Paducah. The annual event attracts statewide office holders and those challenging them for their jobs. 2015 is a constitutional office election year in the Commonwealth and both parties have fielded candidates who traded barbs in their quests to become governor and lieutenant governor, attorney general, secretary of state, auditor, commissioner of agriculture, and treasurer. 

Fancy Farm is not a place where voters come to learn about candidates and decide how they will cast their ballots in November. Those who trek to Graves County from all corners of the Bluegrass already have their minds made up. Many come to shout down their political rivals, others come to take in the political theater that typically unfolds as candidates and office-holders trade humorous punches on a hot Saturday afternoon where bingo and BBQ (pork and mutton) are plentiful before, during, and after.

The crowd on Saturday was restless and filled with political bloodlust, with occasional shouts for early speakers to hurry along so that the main event could get going. How restless? Even a chant of "C-A-T-S Cats! Cats Cats!", commonly used by Kentucky Wildcat fans, was followed by a chorus of boos, maybe because there were Louisville Cardinals fans in the crowd, or maybe because it was so hot in the covered stands where folks sit in chairs they brought from home in front of a faux front porch where the political hot air is blown out into the audience and across statewide TV.

Or maybe the boos were in preparation of listening to the day's emcee, the combative Matt Jones of Kentucky Sports Radio, the online and on-air new media empire built around UK sports fandom. Jones's rise in sports media is an extraordinary study of the impact bloggers and new media entrepreneurs have had on sports and news coverage, but equally interesting his newer claim to fame as one of the top political interviewers in Kentucky. His intense discussions with Republican U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell and his Democratic challenger, Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes in 2014 were instant classics. In the spring, he hosted the 4 GOP candidates caught up in a bitter primary for their party's nomination for governor. It was incredible radio.

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On Saturday, Jones only solidified his rising status as an important media figure in Kentucky. His verbal assault on both sides of the aisle (though intentionally landing more blows on the Republicans) was the best of the day.

The crowd was calmed by My Old Kentucky Home which filled the humid Graves County air at the hands of a Miss Kentucky and her violin.

And then, it was on.

Jones called the scene from the podium as he looked out into the crowd and the cameras, "One of the most awesome scenes you can find in politics in this country." He talked briefly about 1880 and historic occurrences that happened the year Fancy Farm hosted its first picnic. It was also the year McConnell was elected to the Senate for the first time, Jones said of the Senate Majority Leader sitting mere feet to his left.

"I wanted to finally meet Rand Paul," Jones said of Kentucky other U.S. Senator, the Bowling Green Republican who is campaigning for president. "Rand Paul is busy. He's got a presidential race to lose. He's in Iowa right now, chucking corn in Dubuque or something like that." Jones stared into the camera broadcasting the event and addressed Paul directly. "Look at me. Come back home. You're not gonna win. You're not gonna win. The crazy people are voting for Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders. You're not gonna win. Just come on back and join us here in the state."

The headline event of Fancy Farm 2015 and the year's election cycle is the race for governor between Conway and Bevin. "Years ago it looked like Richie Farmer would be in this race," Jones said, referencing the former commissioner of agriculture and UK basketball legend now serving time in prison for corruption in office, ending what was a rising political career. "I talked to Richie and he told me he's been gracious enough that he would make the first license plate for whoever wins."

Farmer's successor in office, James Comer, the Republican elected in 2011 had also expected to be in that race for governor. He sat in the front row of the Republicans' side of the front porch, his last Fancy Farm in office, after being defeated by Bevin in May by a mere 83 votes in the 4-way race. Comer made a joke of the number by which he lost at a Republican event the night before when he presented Bevin with a University of Cincinnati basketball jersey with the number 83 on it, signifying that the nominee's victory was guaranteed by his wide margins in Northern Kentucky. 

The day would be about Conway and Bevin, however. And President Barack Obama, since this is an election year and even a mention of the 2-term Commander-in-Chief's name is considered good political strategy by most Republicans since the Democrat is so unpopular in a state where his signature health care law led to access to coverage for nearly 500,000 people.

"So folks, if you loved two terms of Barack Obama, and some of these misguided people did, then you're gonna love Jack Conway," said McConnell, a Fancy Farm pro. "But if you want to put Kentucky on a different course then Matt Bevin is the next governor of Kentucky." The awkward position for McConnell, though, was that Bevin wanted to be the next U.S. Senator from Kentucky and challenged McConnell in the May primary. Before he routed Grimes in November, McConnell did the same to Bevin in May. Now the Democrats are using some of McConnell's old attack ads against Bevin including the "East Coast Con Man" jab. 

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McConnell, whom Jones noted had defeated "nearly everyone else on stage" in an election, also had a Fancy Farm score to settle with Governor Steve Beshear. The Democrat Beshear, in his final of eight years in office, proudly walked to the stage last year and snapped a selfie pic with him and McConnell in celebration of what he said was the Senator's retirement party. With McConnell not only back in the Senate, but now its Majority Leader, the Republican laughed last, presenting Beshear with a printed version of the photo, written over with the words, "Enjoy your retirement. I'll still be working. Mitch McConnell, Majority Leader of the United States Senate."

Beshear is also a skilled Fancy Farm speaker. He rattled off his achievements as governor and then launched in a tirade against Bevin. "Folks, that momentum is at risk because there is only one of these candidates for governor, and that's Jack Conway, who wants to maintain and increase that momentum. This other guy, Matt Bevin, he wants to take our state back to the 19th century," Beshear said. He then used last year's attacks against Bevin, now that they are readily accessible by Democrats. Bevin is accused of being a cockfighting enthusiast, of embellishing his resume and academic credentials, not paying his taxes, and taking a corporate bailout. Oh, and he's from the northeast United States and his running mate, Janeen Hampton, who received a bipartisan ovation as Fancy Farm's first African-American female speaker, is from Michigan.

"The Republican Party is trying to put one over on the people of Kentucky," Beshear said. "A year ago, they themselves called Bevin an east coast con man and a pathological liar and now they're telling us he's been rehabilitated and he is worthy of being governor."

"I believe in recycling as much as anybody but that is ridiculous. Senator McConnell knows it, too. I don't think he's any more for him than I am."

"Usually he has to go to a cockfight to get a crowd this big," Conway yelled of us his rival, though he did stumble on the word crowd and started to say the word cock again, nearly landing himself in the Fancy Farm swearing hall of fame. "Matt Bevin isn't from Kentucky, he's wrong for Kentucky and he lies to Kentucky. In fact, Matt's from New Hampshire. He says he got to Kentucky as fast as he could and I don't blame him. Heck, I'd be running to if all I had was tax delinquencies and bailed out businesses."

Bevin began awkwardly, criticizing the negative tenor of politics in general and at Fancy Farm in particular ("I gotta give you credit -- that's a strong speech coming to Fancy Farm and saying you don't like Fancy Farm," Jones would quip afterwards. "That's like me going into Rupp Arena and saying Rick Pitnio is a better coach than John Calipari."). Then he went for an easy win by asking the entire crowd to join him in standing to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, which the crowd did. "This is just a piece of cloth, three simple colors," Bevin said of the flag, "but what it represents is far more powerful than that. It represents great sacrifice, for some the ultimate sacrifice. It embodies everything we talk about when we discuss the land of the free and the home of the brave." His bipartisan tactcis included a reference to prosperity which he said was "not a Democrat thing or a Republican thing".
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His campaign message is We Are Kentucky, a statement needed because of the Democratic attacks on the irrelevant fact that Bevin and Hampton are not natives of the Commonwealth. "I made Kentucky my home not by genetic happenstance but by intentional choice," he said before being cut off by the blaring of the UK Fight Song which was the choice this year for speakers who violate the time limit.
 
The same fate was met by Lt. Gov. Crit Luallen who is not on the ballot this year but spoke too long.
 
Her would-be replacements were next to make their case. "The line for the BBQ is not as long as Matt Bevin's nose," said Sannie Overly, a state representative from Paris and Conway's running mate. Speaking with the qualities and cadence of a pageant contestant, Overly hit Bevin on many of the same points made by Beshear. Though the appearance of Hampton, Bevin's running mate, was historic, her speech was also short on substance and played things safe.
 
"Our mission is to elect a guy who knows a thing or two about starting jobs and that's Matt Bevin," Hampton said. "We will send him to the governor's mansion! We are Kentucky! We are Kentucky! We are Kentucky!"
 
James Comer, 83 votes from being the star of the day, instead rose to make his farewell speech as agriculture commissioner. He talked about how he relocates the department to western Kentucky in the week leading up to the annual Fancy Farm Picnic and said that instead of attacking anyone, he would simply say thank-you to the crowd. "We have a great state. We can make it better. One way to make it better is to vote for this side of the aisle," Comer said, gesturing to his fellow Republicans. He then immediately exited the event amid speculation that his next office will be in Congress representing his native western Kentucky.
 
Democrat Jean-Marie Lawson Spann, a candidate seeking to replace Comer, rattled off her farming bonafides: she grew up on a farm and her family owned tractor dealerships. She wore blue jeans and a button-up shirt for emphasis. Republicans in the crowd shouted at her, "Who are you?!", an apparent dig at her emergence as a candidate without being in Frankfort previously. Republican Ryan Quarles, a state representative from Scott County, also raped up his farming credentials and then descended into a flurry of Obama references.
 
Another Beshear followed. Andy Beshear hopes to follow his father governor to Frankfort, as attorney general, relying so far on the release of his anti-child abuse plan and his opponent's alleged affection for pedicures.
 
"We know if my opponent puts his foot in his mouth, it will be clean, well-trimmed, and polished," the younger Beshear said.
 
Republican Whitney Westerfield, the Republican state senator from Hopkinsville, accepted the pedicure jokes. "I did have a pedicure at lunch," he quipped at Beshear, "but I'm ready to go toe to toe with you right now." Then he, too, descended into Obama references.
 
Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes then rose in the middle of the event to speak, a year removed from being the headliner in her failed bid to unseat McConnell. Her speech was heavy on the Kentucky pedigree of the Democratic slate compared to the Republicans as she prepares to retain her seat as the state's chief elections officer. Challenger Stephen Knipper, an Erlanger Republican, was clearly new to Fancy Farm and fumbled through an uninspired speech that failed to land, arguing that the office needs someone with "IT (information technology) experience".
 
In his attempt to unseat Democratic Auditor Adam Edelen, State Rep. Mike Harmon, a Republican, came out swinging, criticizing Edelen for attending "an elite prep school in Louisville". He also accused Edelen of cheering on Obama and made a veiled references to his opposition to same-sex marriage.
 
Edelen punched back in one of the day's finest speeches. "I got the education you mocked because (my father) was never late on a child support payment. Those are true family values," Edelen said. Family values, friends and neighbors, aren't mindless rhetoric from talking points someone else wrote for you." He gestured towards the Republicans. "Maybe this side should put down the books of Ayn Rand and pick up the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John."
 
Allison Ball, the Republican candidate for treasurer, introduced herself as "Good Allison", not to be confused with Grimes who was the target of most of Ball's jabs despite not being in the same race. Ball gave the best speech for the GOP on Saturday, delivered with confidence and pleasure even if Grimes was an unnecessary target. "I spell my name with two Ls while the other spells with 1," Balls said of Grimes. "My father has never given me a sweet deal on a bus," Ball continued, alluding to Grimes's campaign bus controversy last year involving her father's contribution of it. "I don't use my full name everywhere I go. I've never supported Barack Obama, Harry Reid, or Hollywood liberals. I'm happy to tell you I voted against Barack Obama just like almost everybody else in Kentucky!"
 
Her opponent Rick Nelson, who, like Ball, benefited from additional time reserved for incumbent Democrat Todd Hollenbach who donated his minutes to them, talked about his start as a school teacher in eastern Kentucky where he spent 29 years in classrooms. He is now a member of the House of Representatives and won a 5-way primary in May. 
 
And then Fancy Farm was over. 
 
The stage and stands cleared and the roads out of St. Jerome's campus were filled by those returning to their respective corners of Kentucky, this complicated Commonwealth that will spend a Tuesday in November selecting from these complicated candidates to lead it for the next four years.
 
Story & photos by Michael Monks, editor & publisher
 
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