Al Cross: As Beshear largely shuns Booker, Republicans prepare for first face-off at Fancy Farm

As we look forward (well, I do) to the political speaking at the Fancy Farm Picnic in Graves County on Saturday, Aug. 6, I think about the 1994 picnic, which helped set the stage for Republicans’ takeover of the region once known as the Gibraltar of Democracy, with a capital D (as told in George Humphreys’ book).

Sen. Mitch McConnell, knowing how unpopular Bill Clinton had become in Kentucky, trundled out a life-size photo cutout of the president and offered Democratic candidates on the platform 25 cents to stand next to it. Sen. Wendell Ford (who wasn’t a candidate) put his arms around McConnell and the cutout, and other Democrats followed.

McConnell, usually the master of Fancy Farm political theater, had been upstaged. But then Ed Whitfield, the Republican challenging the local, first-term Democratic congressman, dared him to pose with “Clinton” alone. Tom Barlow obliged, giving Republicans the picture they wanted. Whitfield beat him by 2,462 votes, 1.9% of the total, and became the region’s first Republican congressman since the Civil War.

Andy Beshear, now governor, was only 16 at the time, but he knows the political value of pictures and video. He says he won’t attend the picnic this year because he and his wife are going to Israel instead. His absence will keep him from being pictured with Charles Booker, the Democratic challenger to Sen. Rand Paul.

I’m not ascribing motive, especially for a trip to the Holy Land, but I am describing possible results that any self-preserving politician in Beshear’s position would want to avoid. Booker is the most liberal statewide nominee of a major party in Kentucky history, and Beshear is running for a second term in 2023 in a Republican state after winning a plurality by 0.36 percent in 2019.

Booker is also an African American, and that cuts both ways. Kentucky still has plenty of racists, but Beshear needs a strong Black vote next year, and he can’t afford to be seen as disrespecting Kentucky’s leading Black politician.

You could see Beshear walking that tightrope at his July 21 press conference, as he said “I do intend to publicly endorse Charles Booker” and dismissing “palace intrigue.” This was the day after Kentucky Fried Politics reported that Booker would remain in the Democratic Party after “contemplating” – or was it threatening? – to become an independent, posing a potential threat to Beshear in 2023.

The day after his press conference, Beshear said he would go to Israel, not Graves County. There’s not much point in him going, because he stands well in the Jackson Purchase because of his handling of recovery from the tornado that hit there in December, in said David Ramey, the former longtime Democratic chair in adjoining Calloway County.

“I don’t think there’s any value for a statewide Democrat to come to Fancy Farm anymore,” because the Purchase is so Republican, Ramey said. “The risk ends up being more than the reward” of the statewide media coverage, due to “things that the Republicans will take out of context; they have very successfully nationalized politics in this state, all the way down to the county courthouse. We’ve got magistrate candidates running to stop Nancy Pelosi.”

So, Fancy Farm’s political speaking has become largely a Republican event, and it will be even more so this year, as GOP candidates for governor share a platform for the first time. The party now has a plurality of Kentucky voters, and its list of gubernatorial candidates is getting more plural; 10 could be on the May ballot.

Republican operative and commentator Scott Jennings has succinctly categorized the leaders: Attorney General Daniel Cameron has name recognition; Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles has organization; and former ambassador Kelly Craft has money. But the poll that showed Cameron far ahead seemed to rely too much on name recognition, while Quarles demonstrated his organization with a traditional announcement rally.

And while Craft has money, largely from being married to coal magnate Joe Craft, she has demonstrated few credentials to be governor. That may be why she is reportedly planning to announce after Fancy Farm with a running mate for lieutenant governor, perhaps state Sen. Max Wise of Campbellsville, who has voiced gubernatorial aspirations of his own.

Candidates for governor and lieutenant governor no longer run on a primary slate; under a law Republicans passed after they took control of the legislature, the gubernatorial nominees will pick their running mates, much as presidential nominees do. A running mate like Wise would add substance to a Craft campaign that appears to be based largely on the proposition that massive amounts of money are all you need to get elected.

So much for pressing flesh, overcoming hecklers, delivering clever lines and keeping your composure in the heat of Fancy Farm.

Its place in Kentucky politics is shrinking.

Al Cross (Twitter @ruralj) is a professor in the University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Media and director of its Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues. His opinions are his own, not UK’s. He was the longest-serving political writer for the Louisville Courier Journal (1989-2004) and national president of the Society of Professional Journalists in 2001-02. He joined the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame in 2010.NKyTribune is the anchor home for Al Cross’ column.