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Fancy Farm Appears Quaint Against Combative Election Backdrop

AP Photo/Stephen Lance Dennee
Supporters prepare for speakers during the annual Fancy Farm picnic in Fancy Farm, Ky., Saturday, Aug. 2, 2014.

Kentucky politicians are gearing up for a round of verbal jousting at the state’s annual Fancy Farm picnic.

In a typical election year, the nakedly partisan jabs and carnival-like atmosphere of Fancy Farm might earn a few disapproving nods from speakers and observers pining for more politeness in politics. That’s what happened in 2015 when then-candidate, now-Governor Matt Bevin held a mirror up to the event itself.

"The one thing that discourages me, however, about this process is that we literally are celebrating the very worst elements of the political process," Bevin began. "We are celebrating our divisions and we're doing it in a childish way that frankly does not resolve any of the issues that we face."

But, as you’ve probably noticed, 2016 hasn’t exactly been a banner year for civility, and the Republican presidential nominee’s steady stream of controversies has made Kentucky’s annual political roast seem rather tame by comparison.

Hear WUKY's full Fancy Farm analysis with UK's Dr. Stephen Voss.

"Donald Trump is working really hard to teach us that you can be outlandish. You can not worry about what people are going to do with your clips on YouTube and social media, and just say what you think and still get votes," says University of Kentucky political analyst Stephen Voss.

"What you can do is screw up, pretty badly and embarrassingly, and provide footage for ads to come." - Stephen Voss

While no one is expecting Saturday’s speakers to take a page directly from the Trump playbook, the colorful Kentucky tradition of BBQ and bluster lives on – celebrating its 136th birthday this year. And that’s despite being a minefield of sorts for candidates.

"It's hard to do anything good enough to make a difference," Voss comments. "There is almost nothing you can do there that you couldn't do anywhere else to make a name for yourself. What you can do is screw up, pretty badly and embarrassingly, and provide footage for ads to come."

That was the case in 2009 when a fiery U.S. Senate hopeful, Jack Conway, walked the line with a zinger inspired by famed Kentucky Senator Wendell Ford.

"You know what, go ahead and chew on my hide. Chew on it. It only grows back tougher. And I've been around awhile and you're looking at one tough son of a bitch," the Democrat told the audience.

"I think Jim Gray by far has the most pressure on him, and not only because he's in this big U.S. Senate race this year but he's a first-timer." - Scott Jennings

Conway later found himself apologizing for using profanity at the St. Jerome Parish-sponsored gathering. A cautionary tale perhaps for Lexington Mayor Jim Gray, who is making his Fancy Farm debut. 2016 emcee, veteran GOP activist Scott Jennings, sized up Gray’s challenge on KET.

"I think Jim Gray by far has the most pressure on him, and not only because he's in this big U.S. Senate race this year but he's a first-timer. Not very many people outside of Lexington know who he is and this is the first big chance to introduce yourself to the world of Kentucky politics and what you can do," Jennings said. "I think Rand Paul, who's now been there a few times, is probably not feeling the heat quite as much because he's used to it."

That’s not to mention a lopsided lineup that’s looking decidedly Republican - with Democratic heavy-hitters like Attorney General Andy Beshear and Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes offering family reasons for turning down the invitation. In their absence, expect the knives to come out when Hillary Clinton’s name is mentioned, but Jonathan Miller, former Democratic state treasurer, told KET he doesn’t anticipate members of his party will spend much time on the GOP nominee.

"I have a feeling you won't be hearing Democrats talk much about Trump, despite the fact that Democrats tend to despise him and I don't think he's going to run real well in Lexington or Louisville," Miller predicted. "I would imagine he's very popular in western Kentucky and so, while the Republicans will want to nationalize this election out in the western part of the state - which will be solidly red - the Democrats will want to focus on local issues and distinguish themselves from the national party."

Attendees at the unofficial campaign season kickoff will hear from Sen. Mitch McConnell, along with State Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles and Auditor Mike Harmon. Also joining the GOP roster hot off his recent Republican National Convention appearance in Cleveland will be Sen. Ralph Alvarado. Gray will be accompanied by fellow Democratic candidates running for statehouse seats along with a surrogate speaking on behalf of the Clinton campaign.

Josh James fell in love with college radio at Western Kentucky University's student station, New Rock 92 (now Revolution 91.7). After working as a DJ and program director, he knew he wanted to come home to Lexington and try his hand in public radio.
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