At Fancy Farm, Democrats vie for influence ahead of 2019

Published 12:49 pm Monday, August 6, 2018

FANCY FARM, Ky. (AP) — At the 138th Fancy Farm picnic, the barbs were sharp and the pressure was intense.

And that was just among Democrats.

Traditional partisan battles between Republicans and Democrats got most of the attention beneath the shaded pavilion in St. Jerome’s Parish on Saturday. But it was the ripples among Democratic leaders jockeying for a spot in the 2019 race for governor that got attention.

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Since 2014, Democrats have not had robust primaries for statewide races, with party leaders mostly aligning behind chosen candidates: Alison Lundergan Grimes for Senate in 2014; Jack Conway for governor in 2015; and Jim Gray for Senate in 2016. All lost to Republicans in the general election.

“We have seen the consequence about a handful of party bosses getting in the backroom and largely picking our candidate,” said Adam Edelen, former state auditor who is considering a run for governor in 2019. “We got sold out last time.”

The 2019 governor’s race could be different. Recent polls have suggested Republican Gov. Matt Bevin, who has not said whether he will seek re-election, is unpopular. So far, three candidates have filed paperwork with the Registry of Election Finance indicating they intend to run for governor. Of those, the most well-known is Attorney General Andy Beshear. At least four other prominent Democrats are publicly considering it. All of them attended the Fancy Farm picnic Saturday, waging a subtle contest for influence and attention.

Their messages seemed mostly for each other. Grimes appeared to take issue with Beshear announcing his candidacy before the 2018 midterms, where Democrats are trying to win control of the state House of Representatives. Grimes told reporters before a Friday night Democratic bean supper that it hurt her 2014 race against McConnell when Democrats began campaigning and raising money for 2015 races.

“I don’t think that benefited them, especially when you look at the vote totals on election night, and I don’t think it benefits the candidate or does justice to those that are on the ballot right now,” she said.

Saturday, during her speech on statewide television with Beshear just a few feet away, Grimes was more direct.

“2018 comes before 2019,” she said. “Our work begins now.”

Beshear defended his decision to announce early, citing his father, two-term governor Steve Beshear, who announced early. He also pointed to Jack Conway’s early announcement in 2014 for the 2015 race for governor, saying “2014 was a pretty good set of elections for Democrats.” In that election, Kentucky Democrats held control of the House of Representatives, but Grimes lost to McConnell by more than 15 percentage points.

“The fact is that we have a message that Kentuckians, I believe, want to hear. And that’s of prioritizing public education, of creating good paying jobs, fighting this drug epidemic and returning decency to the governor’s office,” Beshear said. “Getting in a year and a half before simply gives us the opportunity to talk to more people.”

Democratic state Rep. Attica Scott from Louisville made her first trek to Fancy Farm as she mulls a run for governor, telling the Courier Journal it was important for women of color to be represented at the picnic. Edelen, who did not speak at any of the events, attended most of them and gave lots of interviews to the media as he considers running for governor.

Kentucky House Democratic Leader Rocky Adkins was not invited to speak at the picnic on Saturday, but that did not stop him from attending. He delivered a fiery speech at the bean supper on Friday night, vowing Democrats would win control of the state House in November (Republicans control 63 of 100 seats). While Adkins says he is seriously considering a run for governor, he said, “I never had any intention of doing anything here except come to west Kentucky and to … rally our base for House Democratic candidates.”

As Democrats sort out the 2019 race for governor, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was looking even further ahead. He formally announced his re-election campaign in 2020, naming outgoing state House Republican Leader Jonathan Shell as his campaign chairman. It’s unclear who among the state’s Democrats would challenge him in 2020. Matt Jones, host of the popular Kentucky Sports Radio talk show, has said he is considering running against McConnell.