Fancy Farm Picnic returns to put political spotlight on Western Kentucky

Set to share the stage: Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear and Republican challenger Attorney General Daniel Cameron

By: - August 1, 2023 5:50 am

Incumbent Gov. Andy Beshear leads in the fundraising race but enough money is backing Attorney General Daniel Cameron to make for a competitive race. (Photos by Austin Anthony, Getty Images)

The Fancy Farm Picnic will once again bring Kentucky politicos together this Saturday for fiery stump speeches as well as barbecue and Sun Drop soda.

The premier Kentucky political event, which takes place in the Graves County community of Fancy Farm, is a fundraiser for St. Jerome Catholic Church held each August.

The Western Kentucky tradition has spanned three centuries and attracted politicians seeking some of the highest offices in the country. In more recent years, political speeches were canceled in 2020 during the coronavirus pandemic and fewer Democrats have addressed the crowd.

However, with statewide elections on the ballot this year, seven Democrats— including Gov. Andy Beshear— are slated to speak. On the Republican side, gubernatorial nominee Attorney General Daniel Cameron will speak, along with almost a dozen GOP candidates and elected officials.

Who’s going to Fancy Farm?

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Getty Images)

As of Monday, Republican U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell had not  confirmed whether he will attend the Fancy Farm Picnic, political chairman Steven Elder said.

Last week, McConnell, 81, stopped speaking mid-sentence during a news conference and was escorted away  by colleagues. He shortly returned to address reporters and said he was fine to continue. Since then there has been much speculation in national media about McConnell’s health.

McConnell, who began attending the event in the 1980s, has been a longtime supporter of the picnic, Elder added.

Several politicians have confirmed their attendance, according to picnic organizers. They are:

Democrats: Gov. Andy Beshear, Lt. Gov. Jacqueline Coleman, agriculture commissioner candidate Sierra Enslow, state treasurer candidate Michael Bowman, state auditor candidate Kim Reeder, attorney general candidate and state Rep. Pam Stevenson, and secretary of state candidate and former state Rep. Buddy Wheatley.

Republicans: Gubernatorial candidate and Attorney General Daniel Cameron, lieutenant governor candidate and state Sen. Robby Mills, agriculture commissioner candidate and former state Rep. Jonathan Shell, state treasurer candidate and Garrard County Attorney Mark Metcalf, auditor candidate and Treasurer Allison Ball, attorney general candidate and former U.S. Attorney Russell Coleman, and Secretary of State Michael Adams, running for reelection.

Other elected officials who are set to address the crowd are: U.S. Rep. James Comer, Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles, Auditor Mike Harmon, state Sen. Jason Howell and state Rep. Richard Heath. All are Republicans.

Not attending: Republican U.S. Sen. Rand Paul declined to attend.

Rooted in “old time politics,” the picnic gives Kentucky politicians a chance to show if they can handle “a little bit of a roast” from their opponents a few feet away and in front of an energized crowd, said the event’s political chairman Steven Elder.

Beshear has not participated in the Fancy Farm speaking since 2019. He did not attend in 2021 because of the coronavirus pandemic, nor in 2022, initially because of a trip to Israel which was later canceled after devastating floods hit Eastern Kentucky.

Taking place in Graves County, the annual Fancy Farm Picnic is a fundraiser for St. Jerome Catholic Church, seen here, held each August. (Photo courtesy of Kentucky Historical Society)

This year is likely to be highly attended, Elder said. The grounds can hold 10,000 people. Over the last few months, Beshear and Cameron have campaigned in Western Kentucky to drum up support, Elder added.

“Politics is a serious business, and you certainly want to have serious conversations dealing with the state’s issues,” Elder said. “But it’s fun to be able to poke a little bit of fun at politicians, and laugh with each other, build friendships, build coalitions, have a little fellowship, eat a barbecue sandwich, drink a Sun Drop.”

Known for its fiery political speeches, the Fancy Farm Picnic has a long history. (Photo courtesy of Kentucky Historical Society)

In an age when political campaigns engage voters through social media, a tradition like the Fancy Farm Picnic encourages constituents to have direct involvement with their candidates, Elder noted.

Also, the picnic brings state leaders and media attention to a very rural part of the state. Stephen Voss, a political science professor at the University of Kentucky, said that in this election year: “Western Kentucky matters politically because it has typically been up for grabs.”

Historically, the Jackson Purchase area was a Democratic stronghold, Voss continued. During the Reagan administration and the decades to follow, votes in the region shifted.

“We were getting to the point where Democrats might have been willing to write it off and focus elsewhere, but Beshear’s sort of surprising strength in Western, as well as Eastern Kentucky, is what’s making this governor’s race a live one,” Voss said.

To prepare for the Fancy Farm Picnic, politicians must exercise caution because of the state media attention the event gets. It’s a challenge, Voss said, to “balance both the informal and playful nature of the event with the reality that anything they say is likely getting recorded” and will move beyond the picnic through news reports and sound bites, often spotlighted and widely circulated by their political opponents.

As for what messaging to expect, Beshear needs the election to be “about local and state issues, about floods and tornadoes and economic development,” Voss said. He added that in general Kentucky voters aren’t especially conservative outside of moral and cultural issues.

In this election, Beshear has the advantage as an incumbent, Voss said, adding that voters tend to “only shop around when they’re unhappy.” Cameron’s burden is to convince voters to see a need for change.

For Cameron, a good outcome at Fancy Farm would be that he gets headlines that involve something he wants voters to associate him with, such as conservative values or law and order.

“A failure for Cameron is if the first thing people are hearing about the event is some kind of gaffe or criticism directed at him,” Voss said.

The annual Fancy Farm Picnic brings Republicans and Democrats under the same roof to address voters. (Photo courtesy of Kentucky Historical Society)

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McKenna Horsley
McKenna Horsley

McKenna Horsley covers state politics for the Kentucky Lantern. She previously worked for newspapers in Huntington, West Virginia, and Frankfort, Kentucky. She is from northeastern Kentucky.