FRANKFORT — In anticipation of one of its largest crowds ever in its 134-year history, organizers of this year's Fancy Farm political picnic are planning to roll out structural improvements and calling on candidates' campaigns to preach civility to their supporters.
"We are getting ready for a real good time," said Mark Wilson. He and his wife, Lori, organize the political speaking for the picnic in far Western Kentucky that traditionally kicks off fall campaigns in the state.
The Aug. 2 picnic is sponsored by St. Jerome Catholic Church and is held on its campus in the town of Fancy Farm with about 500 residents in Graves County. The event — known for its hot barbecue and politics — is expected to attract more than 15,000 people this year, said Wilson. It usually draws a crowd between 10,000 and 12,000.
The increased interest this year, he said, is due to the heavy national attention on the U.S. Senate race in Kentucky between Republican incumbent Mitch McConnell of Louisville and Democratic challenger, Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes of Lexington.
Also attracting attention, Wilson said, is the possible 2016 presidential campaign of Republican U.S. Sen. Rand Paul of Bowling Green.
Political races with national interest at Fancy Farm like this year's McConnell-Grimes clash and Paul's presidential interests usually have boosted attendance.
Wilson said huge crowds and national media were present to hear the late presidential candidate George Wallace of Alabama in 1975, the late vice presidential candidate Lloyd Bentsen of Texas in 1988 and vice presidential candidate Al Gore of Tennessee in 1992.
"We've already heard from 10 to 12 national media outlets that will be here this year, as well as our usually heavy media attention from in the state," Wilson said.
National media expected to be at the picnic, he said, include The New York Times, The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and Politico. C-SPAN is to be there, as well as the Kentucky Educational Television network.
KET will be providing coverage of the political speeches that begin at 2 p.m. CT on that first Saturday in August. Its coverage with hosts Bill Goodman and Renee Shaw also will be online at KET.org/live.
The extensive media coverage and large crowds make the rich tradition of the Fancy Farm Picnic a must-attend stop for aspiring politicians and office-holders.
So far, no invited speaker has turned down this year's request, Wilson said, adding that official confirmations probably will start rolling in soon.
Besides McConnell, Grimes and Paul, he said the invited speakers include state constitutional officers Gov. Steve Beshear, Lt. Gov. Jerry Abramson, Attorney General Jack Conway, Agriculture Commissioner James Comer, Auditor Adam Edelen and Treasurer Todd Hollenbach Jr.
Conway, of Louisville, already has announced his Democratic campaign for governor in 2015 and Comer, a Republican, is expected to announce at Fancy Farm his "intentions" to run for governor with a formal announcement slated in September in his hometown of Tompkinsville.
They will get to speak.
Louisville businessman Hal Heiner, a Republican, has already announced his campaign for governor next year and is expected to be at the picnic but is not on this year's speakers' list.
This year's speakers are limited to candidates and current constitutional officers, Wilson said.
Others who already have announced for other constitutional offices in 2015 and are expected to be at the picnic are Democrat Andy Beshear, son of the governor, for attorney general; Democrat Jean-Marie Lawson Spann of Bowling Green for agriculture commissioner; and Republican Allison Ball of Prestonsburg for state treasurer.
Also invited to speak at this year's Fancy Farm are Republican U.S. Rep. Ed Whitfield of Hopkinsville, his Democratic challenger this fall, Charles Kendall Hatchett of Benton, and candidates in several area state legislative races on the November ballot.
This year's speakers, who each will get about 5 minutes to deliver their remarks, will stand on a new platform.
The St. Jerome Parish has torn down the old wooden platform and added to it a 24-foot-by-60-foot section of red brick that gives the stage the appearance of a front porch. White columns and railings have been added on its front.
"We did this not only for the picnic but for events for the parish like weddings," Wilson said.
More restricted space also will be available for the media, with print and radio journalists on the platform. Also in the stage area will be several ceiling fans to keep the speakers — if not their rhetoric — cool.
Every attempt is being made this year to keep the speakers' supporters from drowning out their opponents. That also will be a goal of this year's emcee and primary referee, Kentucky Supreme Court Justice Bill Cunningham of Lyon County.
Wilson said he has talked "one-on-one" to state Republican Party Chairman Steve Robertson, state Democratic Party Chairman Daniel Logsdon, McConnell campaign manager Jesse Benton, Grimes campaign manager Jonathan Hurst and Grimes' father, former state Democratic Party Chairman Jerry Lundergan, about "urging their supporters to tone it down" during the speeches.
"We don't expect silence and we know there will be booing and heckling — that's part of Fancy Farm — but we want to stop the constant drone of noise from both sides of the aisle that too often has drowned out what speakers are saying," Wilson said.
"We want each speaker to be heard. We want everyone who is visiting us to hear what is being said."
Wilson said all parties involved agree with him. "The media will have to call out those who don't comply," he said.
Wilson added that Father Darrell Venters, pastor of St. Jerome, also plans to speak to the candidates' camps in a conference call, suggesting that divine intervention may be needed to keep the 2014 Fancy Farm crowd from becoming too raucous.