FANCY FARM, Ky. -- The contrast was stark and the messages crystal clear at Saturday’s Fancy Farm faceoff between Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and his Democratic opponent, Alison Lundergan Grimes.
Grimes, the secretary of State, emphasized her youth and freshness against McConnell’s age and long tenure in Washington. Making her pitch to women voters, at one point she compared McConnell to the hit show “Mad Men”: “Treating women unfairly, stuck in 1968 and ending this season.”
“Sound familiar?” McConnell asked, to cheers from the crowd.
Both largely played it safe, however, with the event’s other featured speakers taking the biggest risks and getting some of the biggest laughs. Gov. Steve Beshear (D) opened a speech that touted the accomplishments of his tenure heading up a divided state legislature by taking a “selfie” with McConnell.
“I just had to get one last photo of the senator before Kentucky voters retire him in November,” he said, to cheers and boos from the crowd.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) took the stage after McConnell and gave half of his speech in rhyme.
“There once was a woman from Kentucky who thought in politics she’d be lucky. So she flew to L.A. for a Hollywood bash, she came home in a flash with buckets of cash,” Paul said to open his speech.
At Fancy Farm, reading your lines and avoiding any campaign-crippling gaffes is a win for any candidate. The unofficial kickoff to the fall campaign season in the Bluegrass State brought more than two dozen elected officials and candidates.
They were accompanied by a record crowd of more than 15,000 -- out to enjoy the barbecue and political fisticuffs at the 134th annual church fundraiser that’s become a political tradition in the small western Kentucky town of Fancy Farm.
Grimes knocked McConnell for his unpopularity — “35 is my age, that’s also Sen. McConnell’s approval rating” — and for his campaign gaffes, declaring that the barbecue “smells so good, even [campaign manager] Jesse Benton stopped holding his nose.” The jab was a reference to a leaked tape of a conversation in which Benton, a former aide to Tea Party-backed Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), admitted he was “holding my nose” to work with the state’s other senator on his reelection fight.
And she drew a contrast between herself, telling voters she would “speak for you,” and McConnell, who she said was from D.C., which stands for “doesn’t care.”
“When it comes to supporting our seniors, McConnell doesn’t care,” she declared, repeating the refrain for different issues.
McConnell’s address was as much about Obama as it was Grimes. He knocked the president for acting “like he’s trying out for the PGA tour” while challenges beset the nation. He declared that “the Obama Administration and their liberal allies are making America weaker at home and abroad.”
And at every turn, he tied Obama and Grimes together.
“I'll give my opponent credit. She knows Barack Obama can't be counted on to do anything about the crisis on the border. So this week she came up with her own plan to keep folks from streaming into the country illegally. Missile defense,” McConnell said at one point, referencing Grimes’ recent comments that the Iron Dome anti-missile system keeps terrorists from “tunneling” into Israel.
McConnell’s and Grimes’s demeanors revealed as much about the race — and why it remains a dead heat in most polling — as did their words.
While the GOP incumbent seemed to hit his stride hammering Obama, the senator looked at times uncomfortable and wooden delivering his jokes.
He arrived and sat for much of the event holding hands with his wife, former Labor Secretary Elaine Chao. After he finished his speech, the couple greeted the crowd for a long moment that seemed ready made for another slickly-produced campaign video, the likes of which he’s been rolling out from producer Lucas Baiano all cycle.
To offset McConnell’s more demure style, he’s received help on the trail from Paul, who brings an electric energy to any event he attends.
Grimes’s delivery was more energetic than McConnell’s, bringing to life her declaration that “one of us represents the past, one of us represents the future.”
But the activity beyond the stage also underscored the challenge Grimes faces in Kentucky. McConnell drew a much larger crowd to the event, though, he’s been known in previous years to bring in supporters via bus. Still, his contingency had a stronger and more boisterous presence throughout the event, despite multiple requests from event organizers to stay civil.
In years prior, the heckling has entirely drowned out the candidates, and tempers have flared, bringing attendees close to fisticuffs. While the crowd didn’t reach that level on Saturday, they also didn’t entirely heed calls to tone it down.
Larger-than-life McConnell heads floated around the crowd, some in support of the senator and others, plastered with “30 years is too long” stickers. Republican signs read “Iron Dome destroys tunnels” and “Obama needs Grimes,” while Democratic slogans included “Pitch out Mitch!”
The strong pro-McConnell presence, orchestrated or not, reflects one of Grimes’s greatest hurdles in Kentucky — the increasingly red tint of the state. Kentucky hasn’t sent a Democrat to the Senate in over 20 years, and President Obama’s unpopularity exacerbates that challenge.
This story was updated on Aug. 3rd at 9:58 a.m.