FANCY FARM — Republican U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell declared at Saturday's raucous Fancy Farm picnic that "every liberal American is out to beat us next year," while his major Democratic opponent, Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, proclaimed that McConnell has neglected Kentucky voters.
The 133rd annual picnic on the grounds of St. Jerome Catholic Church in Graves County marked the first face-off between the two candidates who are expected to win their party nominations and return to Fancy Farm in August 2014 for more verbal sparring.
Both McConnell and Grimes were targets of loud, persistent heckling. Each encouraged his or her supporters to pack the place, and they did. The picnic crowd of more than 10,000 was larger than usual for the annual picnic, the traditional kickoff of political campaigns in Kentucky.
Moderator Ferrell Wellman of Versailles asked the crowd to "be considerate of the people around you. This isn't the World Cup."
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Lexington Herald-Leader
But it was a noisy afternoon.
Two other candidates angling for McConnell's job — Republican Louisville businessman Matt Bevin and Owensboro contractor Ed Marksberry, a Democrat — also tried to urge the crowd to replace McConnell, who has been in the Senate since 1985.
Bevin, who has support among Tea Party members, recalled that McConnell, in his first successful U.S. Senate race against Democratic incumbent Walter "Dee" Huddleston of Elizabethtown, aired a TV ad of coon hounds looking for the senator.
Kentuckians have been asking the same thing lately about McConnell, said Bevin, who said he would not take cracks at Grimes this year because "there'll be time for that next year" at Fancy Farm.
Marksberry said that he would be loyal to the Democratic Party, and that McConnell, who has raised more than $15 million so far for the race, could be bought, but he could not.
The 2014 U.S. Senate race in Kentucky was the main attraction at the picnic. The contest, especially between McConnell and Grimes, who also is expected to be a proficient fundraiser, attracted dozens of state and national reporters. The speechmaking was broadcast live on C-SPAN and the Kentucky Educational Television network.
Speaking first, McConnell often mentioned President Barack Obama, who is unpopular in Kentucky because of the Affordable Care Act and administration regulations on coal, but he never mentioned Grimes by name.
McConnell did mention Grimes' father, Lexington businessman and former state Democratic Party Chairman Jerry Lundergan.
He said it was "nice to see Jerry Lundergan back in the game," saying Lundergan is taking orders from the Obama campaign on how to run his daughter's race.
"They told him to make a pitch on the Internet for the women's vote, and he sent a check to Anthony Weiner," McConnell said. Weiner, a Democratic mayoral candidate in New York City, has been embroiled in a controversy about sexting lewd photos of himself to women.
Grimes' campaign consultant Jonathan Hurst said McConnell "had nothing negative to say about Alison, so he tried to go after her dad and something that has nothing to do with this race. He's had a very rough week, especially in the polls, so I guess he felt he had to go after somebody."'
Two recent polls — one by the Grimes campaign and the other by the Democratic firm Public Policy Polling — showed Grimes with a slight lead in the race.
McConnell pledged that Kentucky "will have a voice" in the Senate as long as he is a senator. It will not be a voice, he said, from San Francisco or Martha's Vineyard, referring to areas where Grimes has raised campaign funds.
McConnell also never mentioned Bevin but tried to attract Tea Party supporters when he said he and U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, a favorite of the Tea Party, try to "take the fight to liberals every day."
Kentucky's senior senator said an important question in the race is whether the Senate is going to be run by Democrat Harry Reid of Nevada, who believes coal can make a person sick, "or the guy you are looking at."
Grimes, who usually says in her speeches, "I don't scare easy," told the picnic crowd that she knows she has a long name, but promises that "come January 2015, you can call me 'senator.'"
She said McConnell was instrumental in "the disease of dysfunction in Washington." In trying to underscore what she said is McConnell's record of obstructionism, she joked that if doctors told McConnell he had a kidney stone, he'd refuse to pass it.
McConnell stayed to hear Grimes' speech but left before Bevin addressed the crowd.
Bevin asked family members to join him at the center of the stage, "now that Mitch McConnell has made room for us by leaving." The Bevins have nine children.
Bevin, whose family owned a bell manufacturing company, said his remark for McConnell is, "Ask not for whom the bells toll — they toll for you."
Marksberry used most of his speech to go after McConnell's large campaign war chest.
Earlier in the day, McConnell and Grimes spoke at their parties' breakfasts in Mayfield.
McConnell told the Republican breakfast at Graves County High School that the 2014 Senate race is not about him; rather, it's about the direction of America.
"This is an election about where America is going to go," McConnell said.
Across town at Mayfield High School, at the Graves County Democratic breakfast, Grimes told several hundred that McConnell's "days are numbered" in the U.S. Senate. She said GOP stands for "Gridlock, Obstruction and Partisanship."
Grimes told reporters after her breakfast speech that the McConnell campaign strategy to tie her with Reid is "a play out of an old playbook that Kentuckians are tired of. It's misleading and deceiving."
She also said President Obama is "wrong on coal." She said she was "as much of a cheerleader for our president as our senior senator is a Chippendale dancer."
Former Democratic Gov. Paul Patton, who was a Pike County coal operator, said Grimes can help the state's beleaguered coal industry because she will be able to tell the president about the excesses of federal regulations. McConnell cannot do that, Patton said.
Two other Democrats running for the U.S. Senate with little statewide following — Louisville music promoter Bennie J. Smith and University of Louisville communications professor Greg Leichty — did not speak at the picnic.