The Kentucky Senate race will erupt with a bang this weekend as the three major candidates — Sen. Mitch McConnellMitch McConnellOvernight Healthcare: House loosens pesticide rules to fight Zika | A GOP bill that keeps some of ObamaCare | More proof of pending premium hikes Senate votes to block financial adviser rule Reid defends embattled VA secretary MORE (R), Alison Lundergan Grimes (D) and Matt Bevin (R) — trade jabs and endure the taunts of a heckling crowd at the state's annual Fancy Farm picnic.
“It provides huge anxiety to political consultants. There’s probably no event or occurrence in Kentucky politics where a gaffe or mistake can be so burned into the consciousness of a campaign,” said Kentucky Republican strategist Scott Jennings.
The politically-charged picnic is held in tiny Fancy Farm, a community of 450 in western Kentucky’s Graves County, and is viewed as the traditional launch of campaign season.
Attendees have described the annual event, which began in 1880, as “hectic,” “chaotic,” and “fun."
The candidates will each have their political chops tested by an expected 1,500-2,000 Kentuckians who gather for the crowning event of Saturday’s festivities.
Tradition states that the rowdy crowd slings insults and jeers at the candidates as they try to speak over the din. The expectations are high: Each candidate is under pressure in brief remarks to land jabs on the opposing party.
Jennings, who heads a pro-McConnell super PAC, said that the goal for politicians at Fancy Farm is not to win the crowd, it’s not to lose it.
At times, the mere prospect of appearing at Fancy Farm is enough to throw seasoned veterans and would-be political stars off their game.
In 2007, then-Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.) called the event “out of control” and said he and his wife endured physical abuse at the picnic in 2004.
“I’m not sure I’ll ever go back to Fancy Farm,” said Bunning, who retired from Congress in 2011.
Sen. Rand PaulRand PaulOvernight Defense: VA chief 'deeply' regrets Disney remark; Senate fight brews over Gitmo Paul ties release of 9/11 docs to defense bill Will Ted Cruz let it go? MORE (R-Ky.) came under fire when, during his 2010 Senate race, he described the event as a “wild picnic,” and suggested the audience is prone to throwing objects.
“It's a very partisan thing, and you do worry about people throwing beer on you and throwing things at you, so it is kind of wild thing to run for office," he told Fox News’ Sean Hannity.
The comments backfired. Contrary to Paul’s claim, the picnic doesn't serve alcohol.
Beer sales are outlawed in the small community, and the event is hosted by a local church.
Paul spent days defending the comment, ultimately walking them back, after event organizers called him out.
In 2009, Paul's Democratic opponent, Jack Conway, became embroiled in similar controversy when he used curse words during his speech at the picnic.
"You know what? Go ahead and chew on my hide. Chew on it! You're looking at one tough son of a bitch," he said, in response to hecklers.
The comments made it into a National Republican Senatorial Committee web ad that characterized Conway as "out-of-touch and out-of-step with Kentucky values." The fallout dogged him for weeks.
Jennings said the key for participants, especially untested newcomers, is to deliver their lines and not get rattled.
“You don’t have that much time, so you’ve got to pick a key topic, deliver it, and deliver your lines. Most voters won’t ever see the speeches, but they will read the [news] coverage, so you really need to nail your one-liners,” he said.
Even if the candidates avoid making a major gaffe, the confrontational spirit of the event creates opportunities for missteps.
Both Bevin and Grimes have lobbed personal attacks on McConnell in recent weeks as they announced their campaigns, characterizing the Senate Minority Leader as a "bully" and a nasty campaigner.
But Fancy Farm veterans say that if either challenger goes too far into bully territory during their own speeches, it could undermine their personal appeal.
Grimes, in particular, has worked to establish herself as a likable candidate. She appeared on the trail with her grandmother and told stories about her childhood in her campaign kickoff speech earlier this week.
But some Democrats believe Lundergan Grimes, who is statistically tied with McConnell according to one poll released this week, needs to show she’s up for the fight that lies ahead.
Lundergan Grimes said in a recent video that “I don’t scare easy” — and she’ll have to prove it Saturday.
“There’s been so much grumbling in Kentucky about somebody to step up and knock Mitch McConnell back on his ass, you just feel that this is the chance for Democrats to finally get a taste of what they’ve been craving,” said one unaffiliated Kentucky Democratic operative.
McConnell, too, faces a risk in hitting too hard.
He’s typically focused his Senate speeches on attacking the Democratic Party or President Obama, and straying too far from that script — into personal attacks on his opponents, for instance — could hurt him.
Nathan Smith, a prominent Kentucky Democratic donor, suggested McConnell could undermine his own attempts at reaching out to female voters if he comes out swinging at Grimes.
“McConnell has traditionally done very well there,” Smith said.
“But I'll be interested to see how he does this year because he’s been making some mistakes in the race. Making fun of Alison from the beginning, that wasn’t a good idea,” Smith added, referring to a recent McConnell video that mocked Lundergan Grimes’s name.
“It made him look little and not senatorial, and he needs women voters — and making fun of a woman is not the way to win women voters.”
While the speeches are high-stakes, the candidates can’t even relax and enjoy the show in the run-up to the picnic.
Both parties hold multiple events prior to Fancy Farm at which candidates can shake hands, kiss babies and assemble the troops for their campaigns.
On Friday night, State Auditor Adam Edelen is hosting a skeet shooting event for Democrats. Party officials and supporters also attend the Marshall County Bean Dinner.
On Saturday morning, the speakers have an opportunity to test out some of their jokes at the Graves County Breakfast, at which hundreds of Democratic donors, operatives and supporters congregate.
Republicans, too, have a chicken dinner in Calvert City, Ky. on Friday, and their own breakfast Saturday morning.
The chicken dinners and church picnics are a throwback to the days when candidates built their campaigns on the strength of their voter interactions rather than their on-air attacks.
The continued primacy of Fancy Farm in Kentucky’s political landscape is a marker of just how important those interactions remain in the Bluegrass State.
But Fancy Farm is also simply, as one Kentucky Democratic operative put it, “an arena, and people wanna see a fight.”
--This report was updated at 7:42 a.m.