The crowd at the 137th Fancy Farm Picnic was noticeably smaller this year, despite what Mark Wilson, chairman of the political speaking, called some of the nicest picnic weather ever, but it was vocal, with the audience frequently interrupting with both jeers and cheers.
“We don’t ever have an off-year at the Fancy Farm Picnic,” Wilson said. “We just prefer to call it a non-election year.”
The picnic included surprise appearances from Sen. Mitch McConnell, majority leader, and his wife, U.S. Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao, although they left about halfway through the speaking, before any Democrats took the speaker’s lectern.
Emcee Bobby Richardson of Glasgow, former Kentucky House speaker, introduced the speakers, who were each given five minutes to speak. He started the day with humor, claiming if anyone approached the platform and smelled a peculiar odor that it “is probably the mothballs from which they pulled me.”
He asked for civility, but the shouts from the crowd occasionally came close to drowning out the speakers, who often raised their voices in response.
“Let’s have a very civil afternoon,” Richardson said. “We’ve got a lot of good servants here who have served the citizens of Kentucky and our nation well. I’m looking forward to hearing them, and I hope that you are, too.”
Some representatives, all Republicans, talked about a sea of change both in Frankfort and in Washington, D.C.
“What a difference a year makes,” said Sen. Stan Humphries, R-Cadiz. “Just imagine, this time last year we hadn’t elected Donald J. Trump as our president or James Comer, our congressman”
He noted that the Kentucky House now has 64 Republican members, nearly a 2 to 1 majority, and that they have elected the first Republican speaker of the house, Jeff Hoover, in more than 95 years.
He stressed the importance of Republican control of the Kentucky budget for the first time in almost 100 years and noted the importance of the governor calling an expected special session this fall to address pension and tax reform, despite the cost.
“You know, if you’re sitting there with an emergency room visit, in need, you don’t worry about paying for the gas money to get to the emergency room,” he said.
Rep. Richard Heath, R-Mayfield, spoke of his support for pro-life legislation, saying that was a primary reason he switched parties years ago. He also touted nearly 10,000 new jobs in Kentucky since the Republicans gained the majority.
“The new majority in the House has been awfully busy lately,” he said.
He also spoke about digging the state out of a pension hole and allied himself with the president.
“While our former two-term president inflicted lots of damage, we finally have President Donald J. Trump turning things around,” he said.
U.S. Rep. James Comer, R-Tompkinsville, said he has a close relationship with the president and credited him with eliminating job-killing regulations, restoring U.S. military credibility and putting American policy objectives first.
“The Republicans realize that the No. 1 issue is the economy,” he said. “People want jobs.”
Comer was one of several Republicans who took a jab at Democrats, saying he was going to make fun of the Kentucky Democratic Party but that he was afraid Attorney General Andy Beshear “would indict him for abuse of a corpse.”
Hoover noted he was the first Republican speaker of the house to ever take the stage in Fancy Farm.
“Kentucky is now a Republican state, and western Kentucky is leading the way,” he said.
McConnell said the first time he came to Fancy Farm, the Democratic side of the speakers’ platform had current and former governors and multiple legislative leaders.
“And over on the Republican side there was me and a couple of county chairmen,” McConnell said. “My, how times have changed, right?”
McConnell noted that the majority of county judge-executives across Kentucky are now Republican, including newly appointed Ballard County Judge-Executive Todd Cooper. In last year’s presidential election, Hillary Clinton carried only two out of the state’s 120 counties, he said.
“Gov. Bevin is cleaning up the mess in Frankfort that was left by the previous administration,” McConnell said.
McConnell also noted his close association with Trump.
“As majority leader, I get to help President Trump stop the war on coal, and we stopped the war on coal flat in its tracks,” McConnell said.
He said the most consequential decision he has ever made in his political career was concerning the vacancy on the Supreme Court in 2016.
“At the end of the Barack Obama administration, in the 11th hour, I said to Barack Obama you will not fill this Supreme Court vacancy on the way out the door,” he said, leaving the crowd with three words: Justice Neil Gorsuch.
State Democratic leaders were quick to combat the Republicans in their speeches.
“Kentucky has been business friendly, and we’ve been open to business for a long time,” Kentucky House Minority Floor Leader Rocky Adkins said.
He talked about Toyota, Ford and Corvette making Kentucky the third-leading producer of automobiles in America and also about UPS choosing to locate in the state.
“Over the years, we created the type of economic incentives that have given past governors and this governor the tools they need,” he said.
In talking with people from around the state, he said, “They’re concerned, and they’re disappointed with these policies.”
In particular, he cited the repeal of the prevailing wage law and the implementation of legislation allowing charter schools. He said to Democrats considering running for office, “I challenge you to get off the bench and into the game.”
Attorney General Andy Beshear also spoke up for Democrats, and as he spoke an aide distributed a copy of his tax return to reporters. Beshear called on Gov. Matt Bevin and other lawmakers to follow by releasing theirs.
Beshear also went after corporations whom he said have made money by ravaging Kentucky communities with opioids.
“I will hold them accountable, just as I hold the governor accountable,” he said.
Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles praised Republicans, calling the governor, Senate majority leader and speaker of the house a Republican trifecta. However, he also made a move across the aisle to present former District 2 state Rep. Fred Nesler, a Democrat, with an honorary Kentucky Commissioner of Agriculture plaque.
Finally, the last speaker of the afternoon, Libertarian National Committee Chairman Nicholas Sarwark, cast aspersions on both Democrats and Republicans.
He called out Republicans in particular for their failure to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act and said maybe McConnell had to get back to Washington “so he could continue not to get anything done.”
Sarwark said, “The work they’re doing recruiting for the Libertarian Party is better than anything I could have ever done.”