Rand Paul

Political Paddock: Candidates have little to gain, lots to lose at Fancy Farm picnic this weekend

Supporters of U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, background, and supporters of Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes yelled chants back and forth during the 2013 Fancy Farm picnic.
Supporters of U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, background, and supporters of Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes yelled chants back and forth during the 2013 Fancy Farm picnic. Herald-Leader

Forget ants, storm clouds and tainted potato salad.

Candidates running for office in Kentucky have much bigger things to worry about when it comes to what could ruin their picnic this weekend.

That picnic is of course the annual Fancy Farm showdown, where candidates take to the stage with a pocket full of zingers, a gallery of hecklers, little to win and so much to lose.

With the U.S. Senate race inside its final 100 days, U.S. Sen. Rand Paul continuing his unofficial presidential campaign, and next year's gubernatorial candidates already on the attack, the stakes could not be higher in deep Western Kentucky this weekend.

Here's a rundown of what each candidate has on the line.

Alison Lundergan Grimes

A bus tour to Fancy Farm is a good idea for a candidate. Making a nationally mocked gaffe at your first stop is not.

Grimes, Kentucky's secretary of state, told reporters outside her Fayette County headquarters that Israel's Iron Dome, its missile defense system, "has been a big reason why Israel has been able to withstand the terrorists that have tried to tunnel their way in."

The campaign later tried to clarify her remarks, but it generated the kind of headlines that are bad for a campaign manager's health.

The weeks and months since the May primary have not been kind to Grimes. She has sometimes struggled to answer basic policy questions, watched her healthy lead among female voters evaporate in polling, and was recorded at a Washington, D.C., fundraiser with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid not defending coal, as her campaign had said she would.

Grimes is in a real danger zone. A third of voters don't know enough about her to form an opinion and another third have an unfavorable opinion, according to this week's Bluegrass Poll. Any mistakes she makes this weekend in front of a national press corps will be amplified exponentially.

But if there is one thing Grimes has proved she can do — in addition to raising money — it's taking shots at McConnell. The trick for Grimes will be to keep her sights trained on the senator without shooting herself in the foot.

Mitch McConnell

Grimes has had that bad of a run, and she's still basically tied with the Republican leader of the U.S. Senate.

The reason is that McConnell continues to be terribly unpopular in Kentucky: 43 percent viewed him unfavorably in the Bluegrass Poll. Still, that number is better than the findings of previous polls, which suggests he's moving from loathed to intensely disliked.

While McConnell told us once that we are "obsessed" with his negative numbers, the truth is he should be too.

The senator has taken a slight lead in a toss-up race, but he has zero margin for error. A gaffe, a misstep or anything that confirms Democrats' and the mainstream media's worst impressions of him, and McConnell could end up back in the popularity cellar with President Barack Obama.

Many observers think McConnell, known for his disciplined and fierce campaigns, has lost a step. He needs to avoid at all costs proving them right.

If McConnell has an advantage in this kind of setting, it's that he has so many enemies that hecklers have become old hat. If McConnell screws up, it's a safe bet it won't be because he got rattled.

Rand Paul

The national political apparatus that Paul is trying to build works only if he has a safe and solid base in the Bluegrass.

The senator leaves for Iowa shortly after Fancy Farm, and how many trips he makes there and to New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada will likely depend on what his approval numbers look like at home.

Kentucky's junior senator is adamant that he will run for his Senate seat in addition to any other races he might take on. For that balancing act to work, Paul has to keep his Kentucky numbers up.

In the summer of 2006, we were standing in a Des Moines, Iowa, convention center with former U.S. Sen. George Allen, R-Va., talking about all the trips he would take to Iowa as he prepared a presidential run. Within weeks, Allen was mired in his own gaffe-scandal back in Virginia, changing travel plans from the road to the White House to the road to defeat.

A costly mistake in Graves County, and suddenly Paul has to worry more about Manchester, Ky., than Manchester, N.H.

Paul is also increasingly shifting into midterm surrogate mode — a common route for would-be presidential candidates — so we expect him to focus most of his remarks on supporting McConnell and criticizing Grimes.

Considering that Paul has been working overtime to prove to his party that he would be a strong backer of Israel, don't be shocked if his remarks are one long Iron Dome joke.

Conway and Comer

Republican gubernatorial candidate Hal Heiner isn't speaking at the picnic, Agriculture Commissioner James Comer is expected to announce from the stage he is getting in the race for governor and Attorney General Jack Conway is still living down an unfortunate profanity-laced Fancy Farm speech in 2009 as he continues his run for governor in 2015.

The early contours of the race are just taking shape, and Fancy Farm will be a continuation of that process.

First impressions will be made, donors will be paying attention and folks thinking about throwing their own hats in the ring will be hungrily looking for any mistakes.

Comer, Heiner and Conway don't have a ton to gain this weekend, but they've sure got a lot to lose.

Y'all enjoy the picnic. Try not to become the main course.

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