FANCY FARM, Ky. -- The Bluegrass State is ready to rumble.
Kentucky’s premier political event will take place Saturday afternoon in a hot and crowded picnic shed, not a boxing ring; the jabs will be verbal rather than right or left hooks.
But neither Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) nor his Democratic challenger, Alison Lundergan Grimes, are expected to pull any punches during this year’s Fancy Farm picnic, the unofficial start of the fall campaign in one of the most closely-watched races in the country.
While some are here to support local St. Jerome’s Catholic Church, for which the picnic acts as an annual moneymaker, or sample the famed Fancy Farm barbecue, the day’s marquee event is the political speeches. In a time-tested tradition, opposing candidates roast and ream each other as supporters heckle from the crowd.
This year, the organizers of the picnic conferred with the campaigns and asked for more civility from the crowd than in previous years, when the crowd has gotten loud enough to completely drown out the speakers.
"The last few years, it got a little bit worse than it had been,” said Fancy Farm organizer Mark Wilson.
But now control of the Senate potentially hangs in the balance. The contest has been a dead heat in nearly every poll, and McConnell is seen as Democrats’ best shot at picking up a seat this fall. If he hangs on though and the GOP does capture the upper chamber, he would become the Senate majority leader, a post he’s long coveted.
Both Grimes and McConnell are expected to land some punches this afternoon, but Fancy Farm may hold more peril for the Republican Much of his vulnerability lies in his personal unpopularity, and a candidate considered old, unpleasant and out of touch does himself no favors by being seen as beating up on a younger female opponent.
Their clash was visible for hours and miles before the speeches began.
Attendees reached the picnic down a two-lane highway lined with cornfields and political yard signs warring from either side, past white and blue markers counting down each mile to the “Retire Mitch Party.”
But in many ways, the event is a lot of sound and very little substance. In a move emblematic of the theatrics of the Fancy Farm celebrations, about 100 Grimes supporters literally paraded into the event, accompanied by a six-piece marching band.
A man dressed in traditional Uncle Sam garb — star-spangled hat and all — held a “Team Mitch” sign and talked to picnic-goers.
And warring political factions waved signs and hollered at each other hours before the speeches even began, maneuvering to conceal the other's posterboards with their own.
Grimes is considered a strong contender precisely because she creates such a stark contrast against the nearly 30 year incumbent. She’s framed herself as a new vision for Kentucky, a fighter for the middle class and women up against an old political operator more interested in his own power than the people of the commonwealth.
She hit on those themes during a warmly-received Fancy Farm-eve speech at the Marshall County Democrats’ Bean Supper on Friday night in Gilbertsville, Ky.
“We can’t afford six more years of Mitch McConnell. We are ready for someone who can finally put people ahead of the partisan political interests that he has championed for far too long,” she said.
Grimes added that, “instead of that senator of yesterday, we are ready for a senator of today and tomorrow.”
She’s one of the few Democrats in the nation to tout polling that shows her running about even with the Republican, and last evening again trumpeted the polling, despite the millions of dollars of attacks from McConnell and outside groups — $30 million, by her count.
Grimes said that because McConnell “doesn’t have a record to run on…he just runs lies and misconceptions across the airwaves.”
But also on display at the bean supper were her primary liabilities: A tendency towards missteps on the campaign trail and an evident discomfort with answering questions from the media directly.
She flubbed a joke that while Fancy Farm will have “concession stands,” McConnell will give a “concession speech,” flipping the two. And asked what exactly she’d like to see in a proposal from the president to tackle the border crisis, she repeated a canned line she’s given previously on refusing to give him a blank check and said she'd like to see "more definite plans" on how funding would be used.
Still, Grimes’ laughed off her misspeak, and the crowd laughed with her, revealing just how deep the admiration and enthusiasm from Democrats here goes for their candidate.
The morning after, however, McConnell hit on another major hurdle Grimes will have to overcome to take him down: The Republican lean of the state.
Speaking at the Graves County GOP Breakfast on Saturday morning, McConnell tied Grimes tight to the national Democratic Party.
“My opponent will tell you she’s a new face, and she is. But she’s a new face for the status quo, for no change whatsoever. She’s a new face for Barack Obama. She’s a new face for Harry Reid. She’s a new face for no change at all,” he said.
It was red meat for the GOP crowd, and the trouble for Grimes is just that: How Republican an electorate she faces. Though Kentucky’s voting population is majority registered Democrats, it’s grown increasingly conservative over the past decade, and the state last elected a Democrat to the Senate over 20 years ago.
McConnell and his allies have taken every opportunity to tie Grimes to Obama, seeing the president — who is more unpopular than McConnell in the state — and his policies as her biggest liability.
Speaking just after him, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) touted his colleague’s work for the state, and hit on the same anti-Democrat themes, claiming that the opposing party “hates Kentucky, hates Kentucky jobs, hates Kentucky coal.”
Ultimately, the race is far from a clear win for McConnell, and the Fancy Farm faceoff is just the first round of what looks to be a knock-down, drag-out fight for the seat with punches continuing for the next 94 days until November.