Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, up for re-election next year, will share a stage Saturday afternoon with his top challengers at the always raucous church picnic known for spicy barbecue and even spicier speeches.
The event — a holdover from the days before television, when politicians had to seek out crowds to solicit votes — draws thousands of people each year to the tiny western Kentucky community of Fancy Farm and is considered a must-attend for politicians.
It will provide voters the first side-by-side comparison of McConnell and his foes — Republican primary opponent Matt Bevin and Democratic front-runner Alison Lundergan Grimes — in a charged political climate with the candidates taking turns trying to shout their speeches over jeering hecklers.
"From a purely political standpoint, it's a test for candidates," said Greg Higdon, a former state senator who helps with the picnic, now in its 133rd year. "There have been some politicians who have handled it better than others. It's not easy. I know it's tough."
Two of the state's top Democrats — Gov. Steve Beshear and Lt. Gov. Jerry Abramson — opted to skip the event this year, opening themselves to jabs from Republicans who stand ready to paint them as truants. Republican U.S. Sen. Rand Paul is skipping this year, too, and will likely be called out by Democrats.
McConnell has been facing attacks from both Bevin and Grimes, who each claim that he has lost touch with Kentucky and become an obstructionist in Washington. McConnell refutes those claims and touts his leadership position in the Senate as vital to Kentucky's interests, particularly in standing against Obama administration policies that he considers harmful to the state.
More than 10,000 people are expected to attend the picnic at St. Jerome Parish, many of whom stick around to see the politicians make their pitches from a wooden stage in an open pavilion. After the St. Jerome priest opens in prayer, the mudslinging, name-calling and heckling begin in earnest.
McConnell's Chief of Staff Moving to Campaign Side
U.S. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell's chief of staff will step down temporarily on Friday to take a more active role in the Kentucky lawmaker's re-election campaign as a senior adviser.
Josh Holmes said he will also work with the National Republican Senatorial Committee on the GOP's efforts to win enough seats to take control of the Senate next year.
McConnell, seeking re-election to a sixth term, faces a challenge from Louisville businessman Matt Bevin in Kentucky's Republican primary next May. And Democratic front-runner Alison Lundergan Grimes, Kentucky's secretary of state, is seeking her party's nomination to vie for McConnell's seat.
Holmes had left McConnell's office temporarily previously. In 2008, he did it to work on McConnell's re-election. And in 2010, he did it work on mid-term elections.