What Goes Around ...

08.04.13

McConnell's Fancy Farm Monster Comes Back to Haunt Him

The bell rang for round one of U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell’s toughest reelection fight—at the annual Fancy Farm picnic, a Kentucky tradition. Unfortunately for the GOP leader, the very church picnic turned boxing ring that he transformed over the years into his own hyperpartisan image just may have revealed his glass jaw.

For those uninitiated in Bluegrass State politics, the Fancy Farm picnic is neither fancy nor on a farm. The picnic, held annually on the first Saturday in August in a tiny, far-western Kentucky hamlet called Fancy Farm (population 458: Salute!), is hosted by St. Jerome's Catholic Church, which bills the event as the "world's largest one-day barbecue." While the day's menu features bingo, 5k runs, and some of the world's most savory sandwiches (try the mutton ... seriously), the main event begins at 2 p.m., when the state's most powerful politicians (and occasionally a few national figures, such as George Wallace and Al Gore) take the stage for five- to 10-minute riffs on the year's hottest campaigns.

Over the past few decades, the picnic's celebrity has generated a full long weekend's worth of satellite activities all over the Jackson Purchase: four days of small-town meet and greets, skeet-shooting competitions, watermelon smashes, bean suppers, and country ham and egg breakfasts. It's politics just the way the old-timers remember it: plenty of hand grabbing and bear hugging and back slapping and tall-tale telling. Best yet, it's the one weekend that the most remote area of the state (and one of the country's most economically struggling regions) receives the full respect and attention of the big-city slickers, capital politicos, and budget-debilitated Frankfort press corps. This is grassroots politics at its finest.

The Fancy Farm political speaking forum used to have a similar old-fashioned feel. Al Cross, the dean of Kentucky political journalists, remembers that Fancy Farm used to be a “traditional community gathering with the focus on the interests of western Kentucky,” with a small-town, state-fair sort of ambience.

But that all changed dramatically in the 1980s, when the picnic’s political forum devolved, according to Cross, into “a piece of political theater”: a hyperpartisan, name-calling screaming match, a microcosm of everything Americans hate about politics.

The primary culprit? Cross points squarely at Mitch McConnell, and few would disagree. Al Smith, a retired journalist who's such a Kentucky legend that the state's major journalism award bears his name, argues that the senator must assume significant responsibility for the precipitous decline in civility at Fancy Farm: "McConnell was the first with the idea to bus in hundreds of noisy supporters from the rest of the state and maybe out of state as well ... [and he] was the first to use the stage as political theater," cutting down his opponents with elaborately designed, choreographed productions, dressing up his staff to make fun of his opponents.

Mike Miller, a yellow-dog Democrat who's served as judge-executive in neighboring Marshall County for 40 years—and who's attended nearly every Fancy Farm over the past five decades—describes a more pernicious McConnell influence: before McConnell, "you were there to support your candidate, not to shout down your opponent ... It was spirited, but not mean-spirited. Today you can barely hear anyone speak ... I blame that entirely on McConnell. It's the same thing he's done to politics all together."

Saturday’s event was no exception. In the hours prior to the speechifying, angry crowds skulked right next to the stage, ready to unleash vocal abuse on their partisan enemies. Even before the headlining speakers cleared their throats, the furious chanting, the blindly acid-laced yelling began in full force. As an eight-time veteran of that stage, I can attest that the noise is so penetrating that it becomes nearly impossible to hear yourself speak. (Check out this 2003 clip in which this soft-spoken Jewish pischer was transformed into Elmer Gantry.)

Due to these unique oratorical challenges—as is usually the case—there were no clear “winners” on the stage Saturday. (Although McConnell’s Democratic challenger, Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, got off the best one-liner, teasing the obstructionist minority leader: “If the doctor told Mitch McConnell he had a kidney stone, he’d refuse to pass it.”)

But while it would be unfair to characterize McConnell as the event’s “loser”—as always, he ignored the Democratic taunts and delivered his prepared remarks crisply, if not charismatically—the minority leader took by far the most rhetorical hits. Not a single speaker challenged Grimes’s credentials, record, or candidacy. (Although McConnell bizarrely called out her father, for contributing to Anthony Weiner’s New York City mayoral campaign.) By contrast, McConnell received flak from both sides: steady attacks from Grimes and every other Democrat on the platform, as well as a studied critique from a surprisingly clear, well-delivered, and pointed speech from businessman and Tea Party favorite Matthew Bevin, a political novice who’s challenging McConnell from the right in the GOP primary.

Perhaps more telling was the lack of enthusiasm from Republican troops for the man who’s been most responsible for turning the state red. Yes, they showed up, wore their “Team Mitch” shirts, and joined in the obligatory anti-Obama chants. But at both the picnic and the GOP breakfast hours earlier, the crowd response was more of the polite and perfunctory variety, especially when compared to the energetic enthusiasm shared for the party’s young rising star, Agriculture Commissioner James Comer. McConnell’s brilliant ascension into power has been built almost entirely on mercilessly tearing his political enemies down, but he’s never built the kind of rock-star adulation—the ideological passion—from Republican activists that his junior colleague Rand Paul attracted within his first few months in the public eye.

There’s the ultimate rub. Over the next 15 months, the politics-as-warfare construct that McConnell brought to Kentucky—and to Washington, for that matter—will force him to battle on two fronts simultaneously, without a passionate base of support upon which he can rely. And in the end, the monster McConnell helped create—the ugly, resentment-fueled nastiness that’s infected American politics and that despoils an otherwise idyllic Fancy Farm weekend—could ultimately slay its master.