FANCY FARM (AP) — Kentucky’s quiet U.S. Senate race erupted beneath the shaded pavilion of the St. Jerome’s Parish on Saturday as Republican Rand Paul attacked his opponent for the first time by name and Democrat Jim Gray did not wilt beneath the boos in his initial visit to the Fancy Farm picnic.
The picnic, held every year since 1880, is the unofficial start of Kentucky’s political season. And it was the first time Kentucky’s U.S. Senate candidates appeared together in the only statewide race on the ballot this fall.
Democrats scrambled to find a candidate to challenge Paul after their preferred option, former state Auditor Adam Edelen, surprisingly lost his re-election race in November. Gray, the mayor of Lexington and the wealthy co-owner of a construction company, filed his candidacy on the last day of the filing period and has been criticizing Paul ever since.
But Paul, who ended his presidential campaign in February, has largely ignored Gray in public appearances and speeches. That changed on Saturday, when Paul said Gray “has been shopping for a job in politics since 1998” and criticized him for his role in CentrePointe, the failed development in Lexington is now just a giant hole in the middle of the city’s downtown
“People, they wonder how could Mayor Gray have left this gaping hole downtown for nearly a decade. I heard the real reason that the big hole was still there … because he heard there was coal in it,” Paul said, in an attempt to cast Gray as an opponent of the state’s coal industry.
Still, most of Paul’s speech was targeted toward Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. He began with a poem he characterized as “a message for her lackeys and her cronies, Kentucky is tired of all you phonies.”
As Paul declared “the Clintons are to corruption what Capone is to crime,” Democrats in the crowd chanted “What have you done” and attempted to disrupt his speech, a Fancy Farm tradition. But the crowd did not get to hear Paul finish, as his time ran out and organizers cut of his microphone as the Nsync song “Bye bye bye” played over the sound system.
The picnic was smaller this year as many of the state’s top Democrats skipped the event. That left Gray with little backup on stage and even less in the audience. But Gray, a usually soft-spoken candidate not known for his rousing speeches, got an assist from the crowd as on cue they held up T-shirts in support of Rand Paul’s 2020 presidential campaign. On the back was a quote from Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump: “Rand Paul is using the people of Kentucky.”
“You know, calling him my opponent just doesn’t feel right. Rand and I both have the same goals: To get him out of the Senate,” Gray said as Republicans shouted “Go away Gray!”
Gray criticized Paul for constantly decrying the country’s mounting national debt, while his presidential campaign still owes $300,000 to individuals and businesses. Paul’s campaign has said it takes time to wind down his campaign and that all bills will be paid.
Criticizing Clinton was a major theme of the picnic. Earlier in the day, Paul criticized her plan to spend $30 billion to protect the health benefits of retired coal miners and their families, comparing it to a “welfare check.”
“They don’t want a welfare check, they want a job,” he said.
Other Republicans piled on, with state Sen. Stan Humphries telling a joke about Hillary Clinton roaming the halls of the White House, seeking advice from the bust of Abraham Lincoln.
“He says, ‘Go to the theater quickly,” Humphries said, a reference to Lincoln’s assassination at Ford’s Theatre. He added: “Not that I’m advocating anything like that.”
The picnic is in its 186th year, but many Republicans wondered about its future as many Democrats skipped the event this year.
Greg Stumbo, the Kentucky House speaker, did not attend and said he said he advised other Democrats, including Gray, to boycott the event this year to protest the selection of Republican political consultant Scott Jennings as the master of ceremonies.
“I think it violates the spirit of the picnic. We’ve never seen that before,” Stumbo said. “If they want to have a Republican rally, let them have a Republican rally. We’ll have a Democratic rally.”
Mark Wilson, who organizes the political speaking event, posted a list on his Twitter account of Fancy Farm emcees dating back to 1987. They included state and local elected officials from both parties.