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The Fancy Farm picnic is upon us. Here’s 5 things you need to know

fancy farm kentucky
Stephen Lance Dennee
/
AP
Jack Purcell sings "My Old Kentucky Home" during the annual Fancy Farm Picnic in Fancy Farm, Ky., Saturday, August 4, 2012. The gathering is considered the kick-off to the political season in the state.

For the 142nd year in a row, politicians will make their pitches to a crowd gathered in the rural western Kentucky town of Fancy Farm.

The annual picnic fundraiser hosted by St. Jerome’s Catholic Church has gotten a lot bigger than its humble origins in 1880. And it’s become a one-of-a-kind event in American politics. What was originally an opportunity for politicians to deliver stump speeches has evolved into a spectacle where candidates and officials deliver zingers and put-downs only to be booed and heckled in the scorching heat of August.

The basic rules: each speaker gets between two and eight minutes to speak. For politicians who are running in an election with an opponent, a coin flip determines who speaks first.

Berry Craig, a history professor at West Kentucky Community and Technical College and author, said it all started as good-natured bashing. But he said it’s gotten out of hand and plans to not attend this year.

Still, Craig said the picnic gives the public a lens into which politicians can take the proverbial heat.

“Speaking at Fancy Farm is really a contact sport. If you’re hit, you hit back. The first rule in politics is, if you’re heckled, ignore the heckler, but it’s gotten a lot tougher than it used to be,” Craig said.

Here’s what Fancy Farm 2022 will look like:

Who’s coming?

Republicans will dominate the stage this year, continuing a trend that has played out as Kentucky elects fewer Democrats to statewide office over recent decades.

Traditionally, the only politicians who speak at the event are those who currently hold statewide office, a local western Kentucky elected position, or are a candidate for one of those jobs. And there are far fewer elected Democrats in the state and region than there were just 20 years ago.

Kentucky and the western part of the state have transformed from Democratic strongholds into reliably Republican regions in recent decades.

Last year, only Republicans spoke except for the sole Democrat Bob Babbage, a former state auditor and secretary of state who also served as emcee.

Only three Democrats are in the lineup this time:U.S. Senate candidate Charles Booker, 1st District Congressional Democratic nominee Jimmy Ausbrooks and Kentucky Democratic Party Chairman Colmon Elridge.

Booker tweeted he would be speaking “up on the big stage.”

“As the Democratic nominee for the U.S. Senate, I’m ready to bring our message of standing together as family,” Booker tweeted. “Yeah, I’m going to light Rand Paul up too. Meet me there.”

Kentucky’s most prominent Republicans, U.S. Sens. Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul, have not officially said they will attend yet.

Republican House Speaker David Osborne will emcee the event. Here’s the lineup:

  • Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles (R) 
  • Attorney General Daniel Cameron (R) 
  • Auditor Mike Harmon (R) 
  • Rep. Savannah Maddox (R) 
  • State Sen. Jason Howell (R)
  • State Rep. Richard Heath 
  • U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R) (pending)
  • Kentucky Democratic Party Chair Colmon Elridge (D)
  • U.S. Sen. Rand Paul (R) (pending)
  • U.S. Senate candidate Charles Booker (D)
  • U.S. Congressman James Comer, 1st District (R)
  • Congressional Candidate Jimmy Ausbrooks, 1st District (D)
  • Treasurer Allison Ball (R) 
  • Secretary of State Michael Adams (R)

Gov. Beshear missing Fancy Farm picnic for the second year in a row

Both Governor Andy Beshear and Lt. Governor Jacqueline Coleman will not be in attendance for the second year in a row.

Beshear earlier said he was missing the event because of a trip Israel.

But after the widespread flooding in eastern Kentucky, the governor canceled the trip to focus on coordinating relief efforts in the region. Thousands have lost their homes to the devastation and many more are still unaccounted for in the floods that will take years to recover from.

Beshear called out people who would “play politics” with this announcement.

“I’d rather have been in Western Kentucky the 30-plus days we have for survivors of the tornadoes than to be there one day for politics,” he said in a news conference.

Beshear didn’t attend 2021’s Fancy Farm celebration citing concerns over the coronavirus pandemic.

Barbecue enthusiasts, rejoice

As is at every Fancy Farm picnic, meat is the cornerstone. 20,000 pounds of mutton, pork, beef and chicken is on the menu. Pies, burgoo, potato salad and coleslaw will also make appearances.

Berry Craig said mutton is an especially important part of the event.

“I think it started out as mutton because Fancy Farm was a sheep-herding town and still is. I’ve seen more pork than mutton in recent years, but it’s a matter of tradition, so mutton is always on the menu,” Craig said.

In 1985, Fancy Farm made the Guinness Book of World Records as the largest single-day picnic in the world.

Republicans jockeying for gubernatorial nomination

Fancy Farm this year isn’t just an all-Republican fest, it’s also the backdrop for the battle among four GOP candidates running for the chance to unseat Gov. Beshear in 2023.

While Attorney General Daniel Cameron clinched the coveted endorsement from former President Donald Trump, Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles has had a fundraising advantage over the other candidates.. Cameron is banking on name-recognition and his relentless pursuit of anti-abortion court actions and legislation.

Speculation is rife that Former U.N. Ambassador Kelly Knight Craft may enter the race sometime after the picnic, but she has not officially confirmed anything yet.

Representative Savannah Maddox, who announced a gubernatorial bid earlier this year, scored the last invite of all the candidates despite not being a local or statewide elected official.

What’s a good stump speech?

Political speeches, jibes and jeers will all be under one covered pavilion, built in 1968 and outfitted with large white fans to stave off the late summer heat.

It’s quite the departure from when speakers would simply orate from the bed of a truck parked under an old tree in front of the church building, until the tree was struck by lightning.. But it’s still going to be very hot.

According to Craig, Kentucky has a rich history and tradition of political stump speeches that couple with lament and wit. So what makes a good political stump speech and appearance at Fancy Farm?

“Have fun with it and love the crowd,” Craig said. “Practice in front of your mirror many, many times and don’t be mean-spirited. Always arrive early. Never just swoop in and leave before or during the speeches. Former U.S. Senator Wendell Ford, former Governors Julian Carroll and A.O. Stanley were some of the best stump speakers, and they were also the funniest and told great stories.”

Craig said the event has changed a lot in recent years. “But if the people like you, they’ll vote for you,” he said.

This article first appeared on WFPL. For more like this, visit wfpl.org now.

Divya Karthikeyan is the Capitol Reporter at Kentucky Public Radio. Originally from Chennai, India, she’s reported for national and international outlets on politics, climate change, gender and caste inequality in India. She started out in the US as a graduate student at NYU’s Arthur .L. Carter Journalism Institute and interned at The New Republic and Gotham Gazette.