By Ronnie Ellis
CNHI News Service
When Matthew Bevin steps to the microphone Saturday afternoon here, he’ll face an audience unlike any he’s ever encountered.
Bevin, 46, the Louisville investment manager, is challenging Mitch McConnell in the Republican primary for the U.S. Senate seat McConnell has held for 28 years.
McConnell, 71, an old hand at Fancy Farm, will have already spoken and probably will have departed by the time Bevin speaks.
Democratic Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, 34, who is also running for the same seat, will have already had her turn on stage as well.
Bevin will confront a crowd of Democrats — who would be expected to harass a Republican — and Republicans. But what will the establishment Republicans do? Will Democrats actually allow Bevin to speak? And how many tea party Republicans will take up Bevin’s cause?
“We will probably see at Fancy Farm the first open conflict in a Republican primary,” said Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky, who was for many years the chief political reporter for The Courier-Journal.
Cross said the key for Bevin will be to not allow the crowd to distract him from his message that McConnell has lost touch with Kentucky and doesn’t stand up for the conservative values of tea party Republicans.
It isn’t Bevin’s first trip to Fancy Farm, but it will be the first time he faces the music, said his campaign spokesperson Sarah Durand. She expects Bevin to do just fine, but she said his speech won’t be directed solely at McConnell.
“Now that Grimes is officially in the race and she’ll also be there, he’s going to have to address that as well,” she said.
She said Bevin was scheduled to address the RedState convention in New Orleans, a gathering of conservative followers of RedState blogger/commentator Erick Erickson, but will fly back in time to be at Saturday morning’s Republican Breakfast at Graves County High School.
McConnell’s campaign manager, Jesse Benton, said McConnell’s campaign will focus on Grimes and considers Bevin “more of a minor nuisance.”
Cross said the McConnell campaign wants to “treat Bevin like a mosquito but he’s no more than that.”
On the day Bevin announced his candidacy, McConnell aired an ad criticizing Bevin for tax liens of a family company in Connecticut and for taking a government loan — the ad called it a bailout — to help rebuild the business after it burned.
Bevin maintains the tax liens were assessed against the company before he took control, after which he paid them off.
McConnell might not mention Bevin when he speaks Saturday, but he’ll certainly direct some comments toward Grimes. But the audience may not hear her name from McConnell either.
They’re sure to hear Barack Obama’s name.
McConnell is likely to tell the crowd he’s Kentucky’s strongest advocate in Washington for coal and the toughest opponent of “Obamacare.” He’ll probably remind the audience that a Democratic senator would likely vote for Nevada Sen. Harry Reid as Majority Leader, no doubt reminding them Reid has said, “Coal makes us sick.”
“He’ll talk about issues and about the Obama agenda which isn’t real popular in Kentucky,” said Benton.
Grimes is no newcomer to Fancy Farm. She’s spoken as a candidate in 2011 and last year was one of the only Democratic statewide officials to take the stage. She has attended the event since childhood with her father, a two-time former chairman of the Kentucky Democratic Party.
Like all the speakers, Grimes will focus on avoiding mistakes, which the McConnell campaign might turn into negative television commercials. She’s likely to use the same themes she’s been using since getting in the race: that McConnell has served too long in the Senate, neglects the problems of average Kentuckians while he “has gone Washington,” and is “the guardian of gridlock” in Washington.
Grimes spokesman Jonathan Hurst said Grimes will reach out to disaffected Republicans and independents as well as directing her comments at McConnell or Democrats.
“She’ll talk about the need for Democrats, Republicans and independents to come together to find solutions,” Hurst said.
Cross said Grimes may face a stiffer test before and after her speech – from reporters anxious for interviews, sound bites and quotes for print stories.
Grimes took two questions at her initial announcement and none after her well attended and well covered “kickoff” Tuesday in Lexington. She did answer reporters’ questions after talking to the Kentucky Judge/Executives and Magistrates and Commissioners meeting in Louisville last month.
Ed Marksberry, an Owensboro Democrat and contractor who is also seeking his party’s nomination for the senate, will go last. Marksberry is an energetic speaker and frames his candidacy as a fight for working people.
Two other Democrats have said they’ll run but won’t speak Saturday: Louisville music promoter Bennie Smith, who announced he will not attend this year’s Fancy Farm, and University of Louisville professor Greg Leichty.
This year’s “undercard” will feature three 2015 gubernatorial hopefuls: Democratic Attorney General Jack Conway, Democratic Auditor Adam Edelen and Republican Agriculture Commissioner James Comer.
The state’s top two Democrats and top two elected officials, Gov. Steve Beshear and Lt. Gov. Jerry Abramson, took a pass on this year’s Fancy Farm. Abramson has made no secret he’s not a fan of the format, saying after last year’s event that the political portion of Fancy Farm has become “an anachronism.”
Ronnie Ellis writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at email@example.com. Follow CNHI News Service stories on Twitter at www.twitter.com/cnhifrankfort.