Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Kentucky's Big Senate Contest Highlight Of Political Picnic


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer in Washington.


And I'm Steve Inskeep at our studios at NPR West in Southern California. We are listening this morning to one of those many little moments that make a political campaign. It's one of the campaigns that may decide control of the Senate this year.

WERTHEIMER: Republican Mitch McConnell of Kentucky hopes to become the Senate majority leader but first he must preserve his own seat. He faces a strong Democratic challenger.

INSKEEP: And over the weekend both candidates attended an event sponsored by Saint Jerome's Catholic Church. For 134 years that church has sponsored what's called Fancy Farm. It's a feast of pork and mutton.

WERTHEIMER: In classic 19th century style politicians speak onstage while crowds cheer or heckle or both. And the event drew 20,000 people, including NPR national political correspondent Don Gonyea.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: A full 24-hours before the picnic officially begins the slow smoky cooking of the meat is underway. That's Logan Atkins job. He stands between rows of barbecue pits that would stretch longer than a football field if you put them end to end

LOGAN ATKINS: We got about over 19,000 pounds of mutton and pork shoulders combined over here, so we got all our meat laid up right here on top. And it's totally lined up all down through there.

GONYEA: They've been doing it this way at Fancy Farm for as long as anyone can remember. Paul Carrico is 53-years-old, he's been cooking here since he was in his teens.

PAUL CARRICO: That's what my dad did. That's what I do. My kids are out - I got three boys, that's what they're out here, and I hope my grandkids are going to be out here. Hoping we can just keep on carrying the tradition on.

GONYEA: Before the crowds arrive the picnic grounds are a picture of tranquility, as smoke rises from the pits and drips over the nearby cornfield. But this event is also known for its in-your-face politics. In recent years the choreographed jeering and chanting during speeches has gotten so disruptive that this year pastor Darrell Venters of Saint Jerome's got on a conference call and personally asked the campaign managers to get their supporters to tone it down. Here's father.

DARRELL VENTERS: Nobody can control the crowd but they did say they were going to try to do what they could in talking to their people as they were getting there, about just being a little bit more respectful.

GONYEA: By mid-Saturday morning in the open air pavilion people were already staking out their chair space, Republicans on one side, Democrats the other. The speeches wouldn't begin until 2 p.m..

UNIDENTIFIED BAND: How we doing out there Fancy FARM?

GONYEA: So to help pass the hours, the local country music band worked through some classics.

UNIDENTIFIED BAND: (Singing) He said I love you till I die. She told him you'll forget in time.

GONYEA: When the speeches did finally start the crowd was clearly pumped up. About halfway through the program they got their chance to cheer for and holler at the big draw of the day, the Republican leader in the Senate Mitch McConnell and his opponent Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes. Grimes spoke first shouting over the crowd.

ALISON LUNDERGAN GRIMES: If Mitch McConnell were a TV show he'd be "Mad Men" treating women unfairly, stuck in 1968 and ending this season.

GONYEA: The speeches were limited to eight minutes. McConnell was more low-key striving to connect Grimes to President Obama

SENATOR MITCH MCCONNELL: He was only two years into his first job when he started campaigning for the next one. Sound familiar? His campaign raised millions from extreme liberals. Sound familiar?

GONYEA: Veteran Fancy Farm attendees did say that this year it was a bit more civil. Some remarked that they could hear the speeches for once. And For all the partisanship there were actually people here looking to size up McConnell and Grimes. Ken McGregor a retired coal miner who now owns a bait shop says standing up to a loud crowd is actually a sign of a candidate's poise. He then added that he was swayed just a bit by what he heard.

KEN MCGREGOR: I was pretty well in the center when I sat down here today. And I may -I may leaned about two degrees in one direction.


GONYEA: Can you tell me which way?

MCGREGOR: No. No, we've got a lot of campaign left and a lot of thinking to do. And then in November we'll make our decision.

GONYEA: So, that was the scene at Fancy Farm this year, rowdy yes but nothing out of hand. And there was this moment when the partisans joined together in song.

CROWD: (Singing) We will sing one song for my old Kentucky home.

GONYEA: Don Gonyea, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.