This weekend, Western Kentucky will be overrun with politicians and the politically adjacent attending the 138th Annual Fancy Farm Picnic.
Hanging over the church fundraiser, which includes a political speaking event that is considered the annual kick-off to Kentucky’s fall political season, are questions about the 2019 gubernatorial election. With only one candidate — Attorney General Andy Beshear — officially in the race, other potential candidates will be jockeying for support and attention in the political events surrounding the picnic.
Here’s what to watch as more than 10,000 visitors pack into tiny Fancy Farm to jeer and revere politicians, play bingo and munch barbeque.
Democrats for governor
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Andy Beshear won’t be the only Democrat on the ticket in next May’s primary. The question is who will challenge him and when.
Most of the focus is on Democratic House Minority Floor Leader Rocky Adkins, D-Sandy Hook, and former State Auditor Adam Edelen.
Though Adkins has appeared ready to announce his candidacy for months (there have been sightings of unauthorized Rocky 2019 bumper stickers), he has received pressure in recent weeks from House Democrats to wait until after the November legislative elections to make an announcement.
Edelen has said it’s a crucial time for his business, suggesting that he’ll wait to make a decision until he can put his full focus on the race. Meanwhile, he’s been touring the state in a pseudo-campaign as one of the founders of the New Kentucky Project with radio host Matt Jones.
It looks doubtful that either of them will make a major announcement this weekend, but they’ll certainly be working in the background to pick up support. Neither is scheduled to make a speech Saturday at the main event.
There are still two names pending on the list of political speakers at the picnic: U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Governor Matt Bevin.
This isn’t unusual for McConnell, who usually shows up. But Bevin’s plans remain a genuine mystery. Last year, he skipped.
The Republican governor has had a difficult year since unveiling a wildly unpopular pension overhaul plan last fall and following it up with repeated comments that many teachers viewed as offensive.
He’s been jeered at public speeches throughout the state in recent months. It’s unclear if he’s up for another round at Fancy Farm, where jeering is not just welcomed, but encouraged.
Most leading Republicans expect Bevin to run for reelection, but he still hasn’t made his plans known almost a month after Beshear, Bevin’s chief political rival, announced his 2019 campaign.
When he’s asked about his political future, Bevin points out that he has until the January filing deadline to announce. His answers have created a wave of uncertainty among the Republican Party.
Should the notoriously unpredictable Bevin decide late that he doesn’t want to seek a second term, it would leave the Republican Party scrambling for a natural successor.
That makes Fancy Farm the perfect opportunity for up-and-coming Republicans to work behind the scenes to establish themselves.
“It’s a really good opportunity because that is an area that is going to become more and more important in Republican Party primaries,” said Scott Lasley, a Republican who is head of the political science department at Western Kentucky University.
At least two people who are mentioned as potential GOP candidates will be speaking at the event. Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles is emcee of the political speaking and U.S. Rep. James Comer, R-Tompkinsville, will make a speech. Both have dismissed rumors that they’re eying the governor’s mansion.
Alison Lundergan Grimes
Last year, Grimes skipped the Fancy Farm Picnic so she could attend her nephew’s Little League game in Indiana. This year, she’ll take the stage as speculation swirls about which office she has her eyes on next.
Grimes, who raised her statewide profile when she unsuccessfully challenged Mitch McConnell for Senate in 2014, can’t run for another term as secretary of state.
Should she decide to enter the governor’s race, Grimes would face a tough primary against Beshear and any other Democrats who join the primary battle. Should she decide to enter the attorney general’s race, there’s a chance she could go unchallenged in the primary and instead raise money for the general election against a well-funded Republican candidate in state Sen. Whitney Westerfield of Hopkinsville.
Fancy Farm could provide an indication of which way Grimes is leaning, especially as other potential Democratic gubernatorial candidates jockey for attention.
The Republican Attorney General’s Association has already identified Kentucky as a potential target in 2019, so no matter which race Grimes chooses, she’s likely in for a difficult fight.
Even though a lot of the focus at Fancy Farm will center around 2019, there’s still a crucial legislative election this year.
The biggest question going into November is whether teacher outrage over the new pension law will last through Election Day. Their resentment has already impacted one election, when House Majority Leader Jonathan Shell was upset in his GOP primary by a teacher turned political candidate.
Fancy Farm and other parts of rural Western Kentucky has trended heavily Republican in recent years, but the pension debate put rural Republicans in a difficult position. School districts are major employers in many of their districts.
So Fancy Farm could potentially shed light on how energized teachers remain and whether rural Republicans should start worrying about their reelection chances.
The Democrats are expecting a lot of teachers and public employees to show up, but that’s nothing new, said Tres Watson, spokesman for the Republican Party of Kentucky.
“Every year it’s nothing but KEA and UMWA and whatever union is playing that year,” he said.