August 5th, 2013
09:47 AM ET
10 years ago

Sparks fly in Senate race at Kentucky's Fancy Farm picnic

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(CNN) -
It's one of the country's hallmark political slugfests. And on Saturday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell was dealt a large portion of the blows.

At Kentucky's annual Fancy Farm picnic, politicians from the state gather at the event hosted by St. Jerome's Catholic Church in Graves County, tucked away in the southwest corner of the Blue Grass State.

Elected leaders and candidates give short speeches before a crowd of hecklers and supporters. Audience members can shout, jeer, boo and taunt as loud as they want. Only ground rules? No profanity, sexist or racist comments. Oh, and no artificial noisemakers.

"This isn't the World Cup," the moderator said Saturday before introducing the speakers. The event was recorded by CNN affiliate KET.

From the outside, it can be seen as a daunting task: Try to get your voice heard in a roomful of people who either admire you or want to see you crash and burn, with both sides trying to drown out the other.

But the candidates for next year's U.S. Senate seat in Kentucky seemed to embrace the tradition, especially McConnell's opponents from both the left and right, who delivered slam after slam to the five-term incumbent.

McConnell vs. Grimes: Let's get ready to rumble

For his part, the senator was up first but hardly acknowledged the presence of his Democratic foe, Alison Lundergan Grimes. Instead, his most stinging remark was directed at her father, a top Democratic figure in Kentucky who has deep ties to Bill and Hillary Clinton.

"I want to say how nice it is to see Jerry Lundergan back in the game," McConnell said, before making a dig about Mr. Lundergan's financial contribution to Anthony Weiner's mayoral campaign in New York City.

A veteran of Fancy Farm, McConnell continued on and tried to speak above the raucous crowd, facing shouts of "Go Grimes Go!"

His key message? This campaign will be between McConnell and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, not Grimes.

"We're not just choosing who's going to represent Kentucky in the Senate; we're going to decide who's going to run the Senate," he said.

If Republicans win control of the chamber next year, McConnell would become Senate majority leader.

"It's really quite simple," he added. "Here's the choice: Obama's Nevada 'yes-man,' or a Kentuckian to run the Senate."

McConnell backers–mostly wearing red shirts and holding signs that read "Team Mitch"–gave thundering applause to the longtime incumbent. While he hasn't officially announced his re-election bid for 2014, he gave no indication he had any plans to sit this one out.

"We're going to have a great campaign. It's going to be a lot of fun," he said, exiting the stage.

McConnell stayed on stage when Grimes, the youngest female secretary of state in the country, took the podium in one of her first public speeches as the main Democratic challenger. The 34-year-old, whose grandmother sat next to her on stage, dove right in, delivering far more hard-hitting lines than McConnell.

"Let's just tell it like it is: If the doctor told Senator McConnell he had a kidney stone, he'd refuse to pass it," she said, getting a big response from the crowd.

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Wearing a sleeveless red dress, Grimes looked confident and her delivery was polished, though clearly rehearsed, with a voice that seemed to carry beyond McConnell's in the boisterous environment.

With McConnell sitting just feet from her, she pulled no punches as she sought to paint the senator as the most despised lawmakers in the country. Her speech offered a preview of what will likely be sure attack lines in the coming months.

"There's a reason McConnell is disliked, not only by Kentucky but by the entire United States, and that's because there is a disease of dysfunction in Washington, D.C. And after 30 years, Senator McConnell is at the center of it," she said. "As long as he remains in Washington, D.C., DC will stand for Dysfunctional Capital."

McConnell sat still with his arms crossed, occasionally smiling.

Grimes seemed unfazed by the McConnell supporters shouting "We want Mitch!" and kept her eyes trained mostly on her supporters' side of the venue. Dropping the words "gridlock", "obstruction" and "partisanship" to describe McConnell and Washington Republicans, Grimes did not hold back in trying to define the minority leader.

The secretary of state, who was elected to office in 2011, also took time to poke fun at herself, making a joke about her lengthy name.

"Because it's such a long name, my grandmother and I decided we would do something about that," she said. "With your help, Kentucky, come January 2015, you can call me senator."

Matt Bevin, McConnell's GOP primary challenger, was also ready to pounce. But by the time Bevin took the stage, McConnell had already left the scene.

His absence clearly egged Bevin on. The candidate asked his family to come stand behind him at the podium since McConnell had left room on stage. Grimes, meanwhile, remained in place.

"Mitch McConnell has amazingly disappeared...maybe we can call him back," he said, as he started a chant: "Where's Mitch? Where's Mitch?"

Bevin, a businessman with tea party ties, hit McConnell on immigration, jobs, and financial bailouts. On Obamacare, Bevin said McConnell should stop simply talking about the pitfalls of the health care law but stand side-by-side with conservative senators who want to defund it altogether.

Primary challenger to top Senate Republican lands conservative endorsement

"Be a man. Stand up. And put your money where your mouth is," Bevin said.

The candidate, who had launched his campaign the week prior, appeared remarkably comfortable at the podium for a first-time candidate.

Conservative challenger takes on top Senate Republican

Bevin supporters rang bells throughout the speech, a coordinated move that went along with his line: "The bells toll for you, senator."

"I don't intend to run to the right of Mitch McConnell. I don't intend to run to the left of Mitch McConnell," he said. "I intend to run straight over the top of Mitch McConnell and right into the U.S. Senate."

Filed under: 2014 • Alison Lundergan Grimes • Kentucky • Matt Bevin • Mitch McConnell • Senate
soundoff (30 Responses)
  1. tom l

    @Malory Archer
    Sounds like a good idea as long as it's not Ann Coulter. lol


    Considering she doesn't believe women should even have the right to vote I think we're safe!

    Really? Do you honestly believe that she doesn't think women should be able vote? Would her thoughts also include
    Anne Coulter herself not being allowed to vote? The sad thing is that you are so overly indoctrinated by the left that I think you actually believe that republicans don't think women should vote. You should see how inane your comment really is.

    August 5, 2013 12:11 pm at 12:11 pm |
  2. Rudy NYC

    Republicans are not interested in governing. They have turned into a party of rulers.

    August 5, 2013 12:18 pm at 12:18 pm |
  3. Malory Archer

    tom l

    Really? Do you honestly believe that she doesn't think women should be able vote?


    Her words, Babe – not mine. The sad thing is that you are so overly indoctrinated by the right that I think you actually DON'T believe the words that come out of their own mouths! You should see how inane your comment really is.

    August 5, 2013 12:19 pm at 12:19 pm |
  4. Guest

    No articifial noisemakers and yet Bevin supporters rang bells???

    August 5, 2013 12:22 pm at 12:22 pm |
  5. just sayin

    mitch is going to make a great senate majority leader!! don't screw this up kentucky of you could well give obama free reign to wreak havoc on this country like another obamacare disaster.

    August 5, 2013 12:25 pm at 12:25 pm |
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