Red Meat

‘Hee Haw’ Meets ‘Gong Show’ at Fancy Farm

It’s the biggest political gathering in Kentucky politics, and with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s job on the line, it’s now one of the most important in the country.

Stephen Lance Dennee/AP

U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell rolled up his sleeves and walked to the podium on stage at the brand new pavilion at Kentucky's annual Fancy Farm picnic.

As McConnell geared up to rail against President Barack Obama and his "Kentucky candidate" Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes, he began by noting that, "Fancy Farm is fun, but there are serious problems facing our country."

"YOU!" someone in the crowd shouted for all to hear.

And so it goes at the annual gathering of national media, barbecue enthusiasts and sweaty, sometimes desperate, politicians in Fancy Farm, Kentucky.

In its 134th year, the picnic is the biggest fundraiser of the year for St. Jerome's Parish, and over time it has become one of, if not the, main event for Kentucky candidates and political junkies, drawing thousands to this town of 500 people tucked in the southwestern "Purchase region" of the Bluegrass State.

This year, organizer Mark Wilson, a John Deere salesman whose deep Southern accent and raw country charm make you believe he could sell a tractor to a deep-sea fisherman, believes they had a record crowd.

Folks come from all over to play bingo, make their political views known — often in awesome and ridiculous ways — and eat.

The menu outside the Knights of Columbus hall boasted nine tons of pork and mutton, 1,900 pounds of chicken, 193 gallons of corn, 410 pounds of lima beans, 225 pounds of peas and 1,400 pounds of potato salad.

The food is such a big draw, night club occupancy rules apply: One in, one out.

After lunch, the pavilion goes from crowded to cattle car, Republicans and Democrats wrapping up their warm-up festivities with breakfasts at local high schools with admonitions to get to the picnic grounds fast before the other side takes up all the space.

Politically speaking, there are two main attractions at Fancy Farm: The specter of a career-ending gaffe hanging over every politician who takes the stage, and the crowd, half of which is trying to will that gaffe to happen through endless heckling and occasional chants.

The Gong Show meets Hee-Haw with The New York Times in the front row as the candidates' gaffes take human form, such as the man dressed as a male European model like the one Grimes used to portray a coal miner before getting called out in the media.

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While there is the occasional tri-corner hat, Uncle Sam and picture of McConnell with the caption "Come at me, bro," there are also frequent digs, such as the t-shirt that read, "Will Rogers never met Mitch McConnell."

The bingo appears to be the bigger draw than the politics, but by 2 pm on a hot, but mercifully not Kentucky-in-August hot, the pavilion was vibrating with excitement, laughter, anger and anticipation.

After the round man in the bow tie and seersucker delivered a near perfect rendition of "My Old Kentucky Home," there were admonitions to be polite — cheering and booing are ok, but keep it clean — and then the games began.

After the statehouse and congressional candidates spoke, one closing with the warning that "God hates a liar," the crowd — divided in the pavilion into those wearing Republican red and Democrat blue — turned up the volume.

But for all of its cautionary tales and "Thunderdome" reputation, Fancy Farm didn't claim any casualties this year, both McConnell and Grimes said what they wanted to say while getting off the stage without creating any new millstones to carry with them to November.

Grimes got her mistake out of the way at a Democratic dinner Friday in nearby Marshall County, blowing her best line with two flubs in one sentence and finishing it off with an "oh crap."

But by Saturday, Grimes was on her game, excelling at what she does best (besides raise money) by delivering one-liner after one-liner at the five-term senator and firing up her side of the crowd, which views McConnell as the most vile man in American politics.

"If Mitch McConnell were a TV show he'd be ‘Mad Men,’" Grimes shouted into the microphone. "Treating women unfairly, stuck in 1968 and ending this season."

Half the crowd exploded in applause and cheers; the other side erupted in boos and shouts.

Grimes has struggled since Kentucky's May 20 primary, and while the race is a dead-heat, McConnell has edged into a slight lead, claiming momentum but still falling short of 50 percent in almost every poll.

She needed a strong showing Saturday, and she got it.

But one reason McConnell is ahead and still favored to win this race is that both he and the outside groups supporting him have run a relentless campaign to tie coal and President Barack Obama's unpopularity (the Bluegrass Poll released last week showed the president at 28 percent favorable) to Grimes.

In Eastern and Western Kentucky, where coal fields are pitching in to supply 43 percent of the nation's electricity and both Democrats and Republicans believe that Obama is trying to murder their industry, livelihood and culture, Grimes' numbers are down as McConnell appears at this stage in the game to have found the right vehicle for his anti-Obama message.

On Saturday, McConnell, at 72 a stark contrast to Grimes' 35 years, stayed on that message without blinking. While Rand Paul focused on Grimes being a vote for Sen. Harry Reid to remain Majority Leader, McConnell continued his efforts to morph Grimes and Obama into one person.

McConnell described Obama, noting that just like Grimes who has only served as Kentucky's secretary of state for two years, the president spent the same amount of time in the Senate before running for president, extending the similarities to the millions of dollars Obama has raised from liberal bastions like Hollywood and asking along the way: "Sound familiar?"

"And every time he got in trouble and his inexperience became obvious, he called in Bill Clinton," McConnell said ahead of the former president's second trip to the state on Grimes' behalf scheduled for Wednesday. "Sound familiar?"

Grimes hammered McConnell for having gone Washington, changing up the barbs with the declaration that "after three decades in Washington, you've just given up, you don't care about us anymore. Thanks to you, D.C. stands for 'doesn't care.'"

McConnell went for the more traditional Red State appeal, assailing Grimes and her liberal media buddies for telling real folks how to live.

"They make fun of us at cocktail parties," McConnell said. "They say we're bitter country folks who cling to our guns and our religion. Well, I've had about enough of that. We're not gonna take it anymore."

At the end of the day, no real blood was drawn, and it's unlikely that any minds were changed or made up as this race looks to stay in the margin of error down to the wire.

At Fancy Farm, the only winners are in the bingo hall. On stage, there is only the potential to lose. Saturday was a draw, and everybody lives to fight — and eat — another day.