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Fancy Farm 2022 shows Kentucky Democratic Party’s decline as GOP dominates proceedings

Supporters of Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles, who is a GOP candidate for governor, held signs at Fancy Farm 2022.
Zacharie Lamb | WKMS
Supporters of Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles, who is a GOP candidate for governor, held signs at Fancy Farm 2022.

The barbecue and political jabs at the St. Jerome’s Parish picnic in Fancy Farm, Kentucky were plentiful, but the same can’t be said for the number of Democrats on the picnic’s signature political speaking roster.

Three Democrats addressed the Fancy Farm crowd: U.S. 1st District House nominee Jimmy Ausbrooks, Kentucky Democratic Party Chairman Colmon Elridge, and U.S. Senate nominee Charles Booker. No Democratic elected officials spoke after Gov. Andy Beshear and Lt. Gov. Jacqueline Coleman announced they would skip the event to focus on recovery from the flooding in eastern Kentucky.

In contrast, the Republican side of the stage held every GOP state constitutional officer, legislators from both chambers of the General Assembly, local officials, and candidates seeking offices at every level of government.

Fancy Farm is a small community in Graves County in western Kentucky, traditionally a bastion of Democratic Party support in the commonwealth. In the 1978 general election, 14,871 Democrats were registered to vote in Graves County, compared to 489 Republicans. As of June 2022, the number of Democrats in the county fell to 13,613. From 1978 to 2022, Republicans in Graves County saw a more-than 2000% increase, up to 11,224.

Graves County’s Republican explosion in recent decades matches a statewide trend. The GOP recently surpassed Kentucky Democrats in total voter registration, a first in state history. The rise in Republican registration has served as a backdrop to the party’s dominance in state politics. Republicans control 75 of 100 state house seats, 30 of 38 state senate seats, and every constitutional office other than governor and lieutenant governor.

Although the Fancy Farm picnic speaking lineup now reflects the waning influence of the commonwealth’s Democrats, many supporters of the party still made the trek to the small community. Cassie Lyles is a native of Marshall County, but is now a Jefferson County Public Schools teacher living in Louisville. Lyles said she’s no stranger to Fancy Farm, and this year she traveled with a caravan of about 20 JCPS teachers to support Democrats at the picnic. She said it’s important for the party to make its presence known in what she considered a hostile environment.

“There’s a push to make Democrats feel less welcome here, but also I think it’s important that Democrats still show up,” Lyles said. “That’s not happening as often.”

Lyles added she feels one party exercising complete control over state government isn’t healthy for democracy. She said showing up in rural Kentucky will help Democrats to maintain viability.

“I think that this is a very important community event and as a commonwealth, we are all connected. It’s very important we stay that way. And if we stop listening to each other, then that’s a problem,” Lyles said.

Many of the themes mentioned by Lyles were emphasized by Booker in his speech to the crowd. He mostly stuck to criticizing incumbent Senator Rand Paul, who was absent due to the U.S. Senate being in session, and represented by his wife, Kelley Paul. But Booker’s “Hood to the Holler”campaign approach has sought to bring back into the fold many voters who abandoned the Democratic Party in recent election cycles.

“I’m fighting for a ‘Kentucky New Deal’ that’s life, freedom and prosperity for every single one of you. Even if you don’t agree with everything I stand for, you know I’m standing for you. In this moment of division, let’s come together as family, y’all,” Booker said.

Supporting Booker is what inspired Kevin Mays to take his first trip to Fancy Farm. Mays lives in Bowling Green, but made the drive to support who he identified as a once-in-a-generation candidate.

“It’s long past time for change. I haven’t seen anybody with the background, the experience and really the heart of this job like Mr. Booker. He’s exactly what we need in Washington,” Mays said.

Mays said prior to his Fancy Farm visit, he thought the picnic was becoming irrelevant in state politics. He said his experience changed his mind.

“It is an interesting mix of people from all spectrums. That is a good opportunity to talk, have discussions with people,” Mays said. “We’re too shut down as a society. We won’t listen to one another. Despite the heckling and everything that goes on here, I’ve had an astounding number of opportunities to talk to people and kind of bring some awareness to who Mr. Booker is and politics across the state.”

Mays said voter apathy and lack of enthusiasm among Democrats is a primary factor in the party’s decline, especially in western Kentucky. He said Democratic voters realizing the strength of their electoral power will help to reverse the political tide in the commonwealth.

“If the last years have taught us anything, we’re learning that every single vote really does matter. We gotta get out and do it. That’s the best thing that western Kentucky Democrats can do,” Mays explained.

When the Fancy Farm picnic returns in 2023, statewide elections for constitutional offices mean a full slate of Democrats will likely appear on the picnic stage. Future cycles will show if Fancy Farm can maintain its reputation as the unofficial start to Kentucky’s general election season, or if future GOP-saturated speaking lineups will reduce the relevance of a time-honored Kentucky tradition.

Dalton York joined WKU Public Radio in December 2021 as a reporter and host of Morning Edition. He graduated summa cum laude with a B.S. in History from Murray State University, and was named MSU's Outstanding Senior Man for fall 2021. He previously served as a student reporter and All Things Considered host for WKMS, part of the Kentucky Public Radio network. He has won multiple Kentucky Associated Press Awards and Impact Broadcast Awards from the Kentucky Broadcasters Association. A native of Marshall County, Dalton is a proud product of his tight-knit community.