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Political heavyweights stoke Fancy Farm buzz

By Scott Wartman The Kentucky Enquirer

The biggest political event in Kentucky will be a lot bigger this year.

The national spotlight will shine on the picnic grounds of St. Jerome Catholic Church in western Kentucky as candidates in one of the most expensive U.S. Senate races in history and a possible 2016 presidential contender take the stage.

Organizers for the Fancy Farm Picnic on Saturday are expecting up to 20,000 people to attend the event, about double normal crowds.

Sen. Rand Paul, Sen. Mitch McConnell and Democratic Senate candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes will all speak before the crowds, which are often raucous.

Politicians across the state began speaking at the Fancy Farm Picnic about 100 years ago. It retains the old-style stump speeches with candidates trading insults. Crowds get rowdy as Democrats on one side and Republicans on the other start screaming slogans, jeering and cheering.

Here's what to look out for this year:

An attempt at more civility.

Concerned by the national attention and larger crowds, organizers said they're going to try to cut down on the audience shouting. Fancy Farm Picnic political chairman Mark Wilson said he's talked with both Republican and Democratic leaders asking for their audience members to tone it down so people can hear the candidates. He's also instructed the emcee, Kentucky Supreme Court Justice Bill Cunningham, to keep tight control on the audience.

Once the opening prayer, national anthem and "My Old Kentucky Home" finish, the shouts from the crowd reverberate for two hours. Last year, Paul Johnson, a tea party activist from Boone County dressed as George Washington and armed with a bullhorn, walked through the crowd and began a chant of "Hey, Hey, ho, ho, the IRS has to go!" That was countered by Grimes supporters chanting, "Hey, hey, ho, ho, Mitch McConnell has got to go!"

"We have too many guests who travel from far and wide who actually want to hear what the candidates have to say," Wilson said in an email. "We don't expect silence, but just want to cut out the non-stop screaming and chanting from start to finish."

Kentucky Democratic Chairman Daniel Logsdon said he's spoken with the organizers and will try to keep the noise down.

"They understand our limitations," Logsdon said. "We can't control everyone that's down there. We support the goal of everyone being able to hear the candidates."

How Grimes and McConnell will face adversity

In the carefully managed world of campaigns, candidates rarely face hostile audiences. Fancy Farm provides a rare opportunity for the public to see how they'll face the opposing party head-to-head.

Grimes and McConnell haven't shared a stage since Fancy Farm last year. In 2013, what garnered the most attention was when McConnell walked out before his GOP primary challenger Matt Bevin's speech. Bevin's camp saw it as a slight. McConnell's campaign claimed it was to keep Republicans from heckling each other. Now Grimes and McConnell will go head to head in front of the opposing party.

How they hold up will interest political watchers.

"I think it's part entertainment associated with the political process," said Troy Sheldon, of Alexandria, GOP chairman in the 4th Congressional District. "It gives an opportunity for candidates to give their positions. It also allows you to see how the candidates handle pressure. It is nice to see everybody participating in the political process."

2015 gubernatorial race will start shaping up

Fancy Farm will offer Kentuckians their first real look at the governor's race next year. Agriculture commissioner Jamie Comer has said he will announce whether he'll run for the Republican nomination from the Fancy Farm stage this year.

Another GOP candidate, Hal Heiner, has already announced his candidacy but isn't able to speak at Fancy Farm this year. Fancy Farm rules only allow candidates for election that year or statewide office holders to speak. The only Democratic gubernatorial candidate so far, Attorney General Jack Conway, will speak.

Beshear's return

Gov. Steve Beshear will speak at Fancy Farm for the first time since his re-election campaign of 2011. After that appearance, he received flak from Republicans for not having a negative, insult-laden speech. Instead, he talked about his recent trip to visit troops in the Middle East, something Republicans decried as using the military as a prop.

"Last time he was there, he'd just gotten off the plane from Afghanistan and Iraq," Logsdon said. "He didn't feel like giving a political speech. Sometimes people have such a hard time with that."

This time, Logsdon expects him to speak about the Senate race and efforts by Democrats to keep control of the Kentucky House.

Smoking ban advocates plan big showing

Smoke-Free Kentucky, the group that has pushed for a statewide smoking ban in public places, will have a big showing at Fancy Farm. The coalition of local and national health agencies and businesses is taking a bus around Kentucky, holding media appearances to push for a statewide smoking ban. The tour will culminate at Fancy Farm where the bus and anti-smoking advocates will urge support for a smoking ban.

Legislation to ban smoking in public places has failed to pass the Kentucky General Assembly for the past several years.

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