FRANKFORT – Before television, Kentucky politicians had to travel to the annual Fancy Farm picnic to make sure their message got out to a large crowd.
These days, the crowd comes to Fancy Farm to get on television.
Organizers of the Western Kentucky picnic say they want to tone down the state’s signature political event, traditionally defined by hundreds of people who are bused in and coached to chant loud enough to drown out the opponents of their favored candidates.
“A lot of the sophistication and choreography of Fancy Farm has sort of gone hand in hand with the necessity to try and get that column inch or that two-and-a-half seconds on TV,” said Steve Robertson, chairman of the Republican Party of Kentucky. “People chant something because they want reporters to pick up on it.”
Fancy Farm and its raucous crowd can be an unnerving scenario for politicians used to speaking at bean suppers and Lincoln dinners. In 1998, Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Scotty Baesler’s Fancy Farm speech was so emotional that Republicans used clips of it in TV ads against him. Baesler lost to Republican Sen. Jim Bunning. And in 2009, then-Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Jack Conway apologized after using profanity during his Fancy Farm speech.
“That’s the whole point. It’s a rite of passage to go down there and not get flustered,” Kentucky Democratic Party chairman Dan Logsdon said. “Just look straight ahead and give your speech. The second you look off into the crowd or you start paying attention to what someone is yelling at you, you’re off your game, and then people are even more vicious.”
The picnic — now in its 134th year — is a fundraiser for a St. Jerome Catholic church in the tiny farming community of Fancy Farm. But the political speaking has always been the main draw. Over the past few decades, the political speeches have morphed into a media event.
This year, Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell’s campaign released an official Fancy Farm video set to dramatic music inviting supporters to “share your voice” at the event. And Alison Lundergan Grimes, McConnell’s Democratic challenger, launched a “Road to Fancy Farm Bus Tour,” with campaign rallies in 14 counties leading up to Saturday’s picnic.
In the past, picnic organizers have embraced the heckling, saying it was part of what made the event special. But this year, picnic political director Mark Wilson has had conference calls with leaders of both political parties as well as the campaigns of McConnell and Grimes — this year’s marquee matchup — asking them to tell their supporters to tone down their yelling.
“We want the crowd to have fun,” Wilson said. “The constant screaming is what we are trying to cut out. It’s just gotten out of hand.”
Kentucky Supreme Court Chief Justice Bill Cunningham, this year’s master of ceremonies, said he plans to lay down some ground rules for the crowd at the start of the speeches, adding: “We’re going to have a pretty good presence of state police there.”
“Just try to set the tone, let’s have a good time, let these people say what they came to say,” Cunningham said. “I don’t expect any problems. I think it will be just fine.”