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Democrats, Republicans and barbecue enthusiasts flock to western Kentucky for Fancy Farm Picnic

Republican and Democrat supporters show out, cheer and wave signs at the 2022 Fancy Farm Picnic.
Roberto Roldan | WFPL
Early bird Fancy Farm goers enjoy the barbecue and the family time at the annual picnic in Graves County on Friday.

The pork is in the pits and politicians are prepped.

That’s right, it’s Fancy Farm time in western Kentucky – when Graves County becomes the center of the state’s political sphere. And Kentucky Public Radio will be tracking all of the political happenings around the Purchase Area this weekend through this live blog, which will be updated throughout the festivities.

The town of a little more than 500 will boom for a weekend as thousands of people from across the state and region attend the 142nd annual St. Jerome Fancy Farm Picnic.

The annual picnic was, in years past, a heavily Democrat event in a fortified Democrat stronghold, but that’s no longer the case in western Kentucky – or in the state at-large, as registered Republican voters surpassed Democrats for the first time in the state’s history earlier this year.

This year’s speaker lineup is less diverse than in year’s past with state-level and local Republican politicians dominating the speaker list.

Early bird Fancy Farm goers enjoy the barbecue and the family time at the annual picnic in Graves County on Friday.
Liam Niemeyer | WKMS
Early bird Fancy Farm goers enjoy the barbecue and the family time at the annual picnic in Graves County on Friday.

The stage is set for some jostling among the state’s Republican Party as several candidates for next year’s gubernatorial primary are expected to speak this weekend. And Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate Charles Booker is also on the scene, as he prepares to take on Sen. Rand Paul in November’s general election. Paul and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s presence at the picnic will be up to a timely release from the current Senate session.

Graves County residents are no less excited to dig into the political nitty gritty, play some bingo and load up a heaping helping of smoked meat. The get-together holds extra significance with it being the first since a deadly and highly destructive EF-4 tornado hit Mayfield last December.

That tornado missed 29-year-old Seth Ellegood’s home by about a mile. The Mayfield resident treasures Fancy Farm as a chance to see family and load up mutton – his favorite Fancy Farm offering.

“It brings everybody together,” Ellegood said. “It don’t matter what’s going on – everybody comes to Fancy Farm.”

“I am so excited to be back in Marshall County. I think the last time I was here was right before Mike Miller passed away … Mike always was right. If you knew him you knew that even if he wasn’t, he was always right,” Elridge said. “I miss his laugh, I miss his leadership, I miss his courage to build this party. I hope that everyday I’m in this role I can do a little of what Mike did.”

Booker to Dems: “We have a job to do”

Marshall County Democrats relaunched their traditional Mike Miller Memorial Bean Dinner at Kentucky Dam Village Convention Center Friday.

Local party leaders were happy to bring back the tradition for its 25th edition, following two years of cancellations due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The dinner featured what was very likely the first all-Black slate of in-person speakers in the event’s history.

When asked about the lack of state-level Democrats on Fancy Farm’s speaker roll, Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Charles Booker said he wasn’t concerned about being overwhelmed.

“I'm gonna have an army of Kentuckians with me and look, if you see me in a fight with a herd of elephants, help the elephants,” he said.

Attendees heard from Booker, Kentucky Young Democrats president Stephon Moore and Kentucky Democratic Party chair Colmon Elridge, and saw video messages from Gov. Andy Beshear and Lt. Gov. Jacqueline Coleman.

Booker and Elridge were both in the Fancy Farm spirit of quips and jokes about their opponents. Booker called Rand Paul, his opponent in November’s race for one of Kentucky’s U.S. Senate seats, the “official mascot for international clown week.” And Elridge, joking about what he called “regressive,” mean-spirited Kentucky GOP policies, said, “You can have Lee Greenwood playing at every GOP rally, but it doesn’t make what you’re doing any less cruel.”

Moore, Elridge and Booker talked about the state Democratic Party’s goal of “building something that lasts” and regaining political momentum in Kentucky with this election cycle.

“We have a job to do,” Booker told the crowd. “We have to rebuild our party in a way that speaks to every single community across this Commonwealth.”

Booker asked Democrats to keep believing that they can win Kentucky's U.S. Senate election in November.

“You may have doubted that change is possible at some point in your life … you may question whether someone quite like me could win a state race for United States Senate. You might question what the future holds,” Booker said. “I don’t blame you. I know how hard it’s been … a lot of people have thrown their hands up. People are frustrated no matter what their party. If you feel cynical, I understand … [but] I need you to stand with me now, not as Democrats, but as Kentuckians.”

Booker asked state Democrats to “push through” frustrations stemming from recent political defeats, disasters and other challenges facing Kentuckians today.

“Some of you have suffered losses, you’ve seen incredible pain. It took my breath away,” Booker said of December’s tornado that killed dozens of western Kentucky residents. “And in the midst of that Rand Paul voted against disaster relief … after the tornado. The idea that we can have a better future is hanging by a thread right now.

“If we don’t stand together right now as a Commonwealth, we will keep losing and we can’t afford it.”

During his remarks, Elridge also memorialized the late Mike Miller, the annual event’s namesake who passed away in 2014. He called the former Marshall County judge-executive “a consummate leader who always cared about west Kentucky.”

'It’s fun being in the majority': GOP voters hear from candidates at annual Graves Co. breakfast

For Republicans, Fancy Farm starts early on Saturday at the Graves County Republican Party annual breakfast.

State and local elected officials and candidates wandered around Mayfield’s Grace Life Church, shaking hands and taking photos with members of the local Republican party as they dug into their plates of eggs, bacon and gravy biscuits.

U.S. Congressman James Comer speaks during the Graves County Republican Party's annual breakfast the morning of the Fancy Farm Picnic.
Roberto Roldon | WFPL
U.S. Congressman James Comer speaks during the Graves County Republican Party's annual breakfast the morning of the Fancy Farm Picnic.

After chowing down, some Republican candidates gave stump speeches and practiced their zingers for the afternoon picnic.

State Senator Jason Howell, R-1, started things off by taking a shot at the dearth of Democrats attending recent Fancy Farms. He recalled interning in the state Senate in 1994, when there were eight Republicans and 30 Democrats. Now, it’s the opposite.

“We have systematically changed Kentucky for the better. It’s fun being in the majority,” Howell said. “When I was down here working as an intern there were not quite as many of us around.”

U.S. Representative James Comer, who represents western Kentucky, decided he would deviate from the Fancy Farm tradition of attacking your political opponents, because there weren’t very many left for Republicans.

“I’m not going to attack the federal [Democrat] opponents because I’m afraid that we’ll get arrested for the abuse of two corpses,” Comer said. “We can’t have Fancy Farm without Democrats … [but] there aren’t many Democrats left in west Kentucky.”

Instead, Comer took aim at the state’s reporters, who he said are increasingly not from Kentucky and can’t take a joke.

When introducing a video message from Sen. Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Speaker of the House David Osborne – who is emceeing Fancy Farm later today – said the Senate Minority Leader was “Republican when Republican wasn’t cool.”

McConnell and fellow Kentucky Senator Rand Paul missed the annual event because of a scheduled vote on the Inflation Reduction Act in Washington, D.C. McConnell appeared via video conference, asking western Kentucky voters to help him “take the keys away” from Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer.

Paul’s wife, Kelley, spoke to the crowd on his behalf. Much of her short speech was focused on attacking Dr. Anthony Fauci, her husband’s favorite punching bag since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

“When Rand Paul is re-elected in November, he will have a chairmanship and he will have subpoena power, and he will subpoena every document of Dr. Fauci’s,” Kelley said.

Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron, a Republican candidate in next year's gubernatorial race, mingles with Graves County Republicans during the local party's annual breakfast the morning of the Fancy Farm Picnic.
Roberto Roldan | WFPL
Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron, a Republican candidate in next year's gubernatorial race, mingles with Graves County Republicans during the local party's annual breakfast the morning of the Fancy Farm Picnic.

Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron, who is running for the GOP nomination in next year’s gubernatorial race, tried to rally Republican support.

Cameron touted his role in blocking COVID-19 vaccine mandates and travel bans, as well as his continued efforts to make sure “abortion is no more in the commonwealth of Kentucky.”

“Common sense and fair play have been the legacy of the Republican Party and common sense and fair play must be the future of this party,” Cameron said. “We need to make sure that we have a common sense governor in the commonwealth of Kentucky come November of next year.”

While some elected officials took aim at Washington Democrats, others went after political figures closer to home.

Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner and Republican gubernatorial candidate Ryan Quarles criticized Gov. Andy Beshear, a Democrat, and boasted about “going 30 for 30 in overriding Governor Beshear’s vetoes this session.”

He also zinged him for not doing enough to stem rising gas prices. Holding up his Kroger membership card, Quarles said: “It could be argued that Kroger has done more to lower the price of gas in Kentucky than Gov. Andy Beshear.”

Other speakers included candidate for governor and current State Auditor Mike Harmon, Kentucky Secretary of State Michael Adams and State Treasurer Alison Ball.

Harmon spoke in support of all his fellow candidates, saying the GOP should be a united front come the general election.

“Any one of us would make a better governor than our current governor,” Harmon said. “Iron sharpens iron but when this race is over … we got to all come together because guess what? A house divided can’t stand. We’ve got one mission in 2023 and that is to make Andy Beshear a one-term governor.”

Executive Director of the anti-abortion group Kentucky Right to Life, Addia Wushner, took the stage to campaign not for a candidate, but for a constitutional amendment. She advocated for Amendment 2 – which would formally exclude protections for abortion in the state constitution – which will be on the ballot in November.

“You’re not voting any particular abortion program … you’re protecting [Kentucky’s] constitution,” she said.

Chants, boos, cheers and jeers as Fancy Farm speakers take stage

The crowd was frothing, jeering and cheering as Republicans and Democrats dueled on the Fancy Farm Picnic stage once again Saturday afternoon.

A Fancy Farm attendee displayed a Black Lives Matter sign Saturday.
Lily Burris | WKMS
A Fancy Farm attendee displayed a Black Lives Matter sign Saturday.

There was a smaller number of Democrats onstage than in years and decades past, with Republicans having an 11-3 edge in terms of speakers, when you count the emcee – Kentucky Speaker of the House David Osborne.

Osborne took the stage to Ozzy Osborne’s “Crazy Train” and got the festivities going.

“For any gambling on sports other than the bloodsport of politics, you're gonna have to go across the river to Missouri or Illinois,” the Republican emcee advised before a slate of state legislators and candidates for office took the stage.

Republican candidates for Kentucky governor focused more on state Democrats and jostling for the crowd’s support than they did zinging each other.

Ryan Quarles, currently Kentucky’s agriculture commissioner, started his speech by calling on the crowd to help “fire Nancy Pelosi.” He then criticized Gov. Andy Beshear’s policies during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“He shut down our economy, our mom-and-pop stores, killed countless jobs and kept our big box stores open,” Quarles said. “Worst of all, he sent police to our churches on Easter Sunday to arrest Christians. Just because we lived through a global pandemic doesn't mean that our rights, our freedoms and liberties were tossed out the window.”

Attorney General Daniel Cameron touted his gubernatorial campaign’s endorsement from former President Donald Trump, joking that all he had to do was tell Trump that Sen. Mitch McConnell is not his wife’s father. He also highlighted the recent legal battles he said he’s taken up on behalf of Kentucky residents.

“There's only one who can say that he has ended abortions in the Commonwealth of Kentucky,” Cameron said. “There’s only one candidate who can say he fought for your constitutional rights all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.”

Throughout Cameron’s speech, Democrats in the audience shouted over him with chants of “Say her name” and “Breonna Taylor.” Cameron’s office was the first to investigate the police killing of Taylor, a 26-year-old Black woman living in Louisville. His investigation resulted in no arrests for the officers who killed Taylor, although four LMPD officers were indicted by a federal grand jury in connection to the case this week.

State Auditor Mike Harmon used some of his allotted four minutes to give his condolences to the flooding victims on the eastern side of the state. Like Quarles, Harmon attacked Beshear for his pandemic-era restrictions on businesses.

“For some reason, it seems like Gov. Andy Beshear is afraid to come back to Fancy Farm,” Harmon said. “I guess that shouldn't be a surprise because he let fear drive most of his policy decisions.”

Harmon also threw a number of zingers at “liberal Democrats,” borrowing the format of Jeff Foxworthy’s popular “You might be a Redneck…” jokes.

State Rep. Savannah Maddoxwas the final Republican candidate for governor to take the stage. Unlike most others, who used their speeches to bash Democrats near and far, Maddox took shots at members of her own party.

The “liberty” candidate accused Cameron of being in “hideout mode” while Beshear instituted COVID-19 restrictions. She also roasted Quarles, questioning why he always has shiny boots and an allegedly mud-free truck even though he claims to be a farmer.

“Then again, he did tweet that he gave Beshear the idea of doling out back-to-work bonuses at taxpayer expense, so maybe he grows money trees on his farm,” Maddox said.

Many of the candidates said they were interested in working with other Republican governors who have gained national notoriety, like Gov. Ron Desantis of Florida and Gov. Glen Youngkin of Virginia.

Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate Charles Booker was dealing with a hostile crowd and a mostly hostile company on the stage. Throughout his remarks, he was met with boos from the Graves County crowd. The far western Kentucky county voted handily for former president Donald Trump in the 2020 election, giving him a near-10,000 vote lead with just over 16,000 ballots cast.

“[Rand Paul] doesn’t care about Kentucky, but I do. And I believe that together we can win our future,” the candidate said. “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’s opponent in the U.S. Senate race, Rand Paul, was not in attendance due to the Senate being in session Saturday in Washington D.C. His wife, Kelley Paul, took the stage in his stead, frothing the crowd into a frenzy as she hit conservative, culture war talking points.

“The Democrats are cheering for the men who are stealing women's rightful athletic victories. We say no more men in women’s sports. I'm worried about Kentucky Democrats,” Paul said. “They used to be everywhere and now you can barely find one. Maybe it’s because Democrats went from promising a chicken in every pot to a drag queen in every school.”

She also continued to promise that her husband, if reelected, would subpoena Dr. Anthony Fauci to “uncover the truth” about the origins of COVID-19. She also, when commenting on a recent Booker campaign ad, drew comparisons between the candidate and Jussie Smollett, who was convicted for lying to police about a fake hate crime in 2020.

U.S. Congressman James Comer was also on the scene. The Republican Representative, whose district covers western Kentucky and extends into the southern part of the state, took aim at Democrats’ national platform and attacked their policies toward members of the trans community.

“The Democrats averted a recession simply by changing the definition of recession,” he said. “And as has been the case for the past decade, Democrat leaders in Washington continue to move further and further to the left. Democrats in Washington are so liberal and so now that they can't even define what a woman is.”

Still other speakers included area lawmakers like state Sen. Jason Howell of Murray and state Rep. Richard Heathof Mayfield, as well as candidates for other state offices and a state Democrat leader in party chair Colmon Elridge.

Elridge expressed confidence in Booker’s chances of success against Paul during his remarks. He was also met with a great deal of disdain from the Graves County crowd as boos rained down when he said the Democratic candidate could beat Paul.

“You all can boo, I’m a Black man in Kentucky. You can’t scare me,” Elridge said. “When I say ‘beat’ I don’t mean in the physical sense. I mean ‘beat’ like how Steve Beshear ‘beat’ David Williams and Ernie Fletcher. I mean ‘beat’ like when Andy Beshear beat Matt Bevin. I mean ‘beat’ like when Andy Beshear ‘beats’ whatever Republican makes it off the Gilligan’s Island of the GOP primary, unless Kelly Craft gets off her yacht to buy the island first.”

Kentucky State Treasurer Allison Ball was tossing out joke after joke as she tried to win over the crowd in her bid for state auditor. She sniped at Booker, Beshear and President Joe Biden, saying the recent news that Republican voters in the Bluegrass State now outnumber Democrat voters is a sign of a major shift in Kentucky’s political winds.

“Ladies and gentlemen, all over the commonwealth of Kentucky, people are switching their registration from Democrat to Republican. We are growing by leaps and bounds and that's because people are tired of progressive, liberal, failed collectivist policies. So from the hood to the holler, people are joining the Republican Party,” she said, making reference to Charles Booker’s nonprofit and book.

Kentucky Secretary of State Michael Adams isrunning for reelection. He touted his efforts to up election security and criticized the Democratic Party.

“Democrats made three mistakes. One, they disrespected rural voters, as we see today. [Two,] they began attacking each other. Not smart. And three, they became too extreme and left common sense behind.”

Democratic candidate for Kentucky’s 1st U.S. House seat, Jimmy Ausbrooks, also took the stage, urging Kentuckians to be more accepting. Ausbrooks, a mental health professional, says he’s the first openly gay candidate in Kentucky’s history to advance to the general election for federal office.

The Democrat promised women in the audience that he would work to restore reproductive rights in the state.

“When I vote in D.C., I am going to represent each and every one of you. Even though you are biased against me, I still believe in you and you'll have an opportunity to have someone that's actually going to listen to you,” he said. “Because when I walk into the Capitol, my party gets set to the side because I am here to represent each and every one of you in the Commonwealth and in the nation.”

And to wrap it up … here’s some of the best ‘zingers’ at the Fancy Farm Picnic 2022

More than the mutton and the country ham, the annual Fancy Farm picnic is known for the spectacle of politicians throwing verbal jabs at their political opponents and the resulting boos and heckling from the crowd.

These jokeful put-downs are known colloquially as ‘zingers.’ If someone zings you, you’re supposed to zing them back. The zingers are meant to be a just a bit of razzing, although some feel like they’ve crossed the line into mean-spirited divisiveness.

Here’s some of the best, more light-hearted zingers from the 142nd annual Fancy Farm picnic:

  • David Osbourne to Charles Booker - “I’m really glad that you made it. Because as soon as you lose this election this fall, I hope you file for the primary next year, because the people of west Kentucky deserve a Democrat that’ll show up at Fancy Farm.”
  • Charles Booker on Sen. Rand Paul’s absence - “He’s in Washington right now trying to screw you, but that’s not the only reason he’s not here. Rand Paul had a major appointment today he couldn’t miss: his monthly hair appointment. That perm wasn’t gonna fix itself.”
  • Allison Ball to Fancy Farm organizers - “I’ve got a tip for you: If you want the governor here next year, I know what you need to do. You can tell him you’re changing the format to a press conference.”
  • Ryan Quarles introduced Michael Adams as “Frasier’s brother, Niles Crane,” comparing his appearance to the actor David Hyde Pierce on legendary sitcom Frasier.
  • Savannah Maddox on the Republican officials sharing the stage with her: “They are like the opposite of the Dos Equis guy. They are the least interesting men in politics.”

Additional reporting was provided by Liam Niemeyer, Dalton York, Lily Burris and Zacharie Lamb.