Here's an example of how Fancy Farm is different from any political rally you've been to: As soon as Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's introduction began Saturday afternoon, the crowd at the rally began to boo loudly. Then the master of ceremonies mentioned McConnell's wife, former Bush administration labor Secretary Elaine Chao, and the booing got worse. Fancy Farm is not the place for the faint of heart.
Now here's an example of how Fancy Farm is exactly the same as many political rallies this cycle -- though there was plenty of old-style good natured partisan attacks on the stage, and in the crowd the deep divisions between conservatives and more progressive voters were on display. As I made my way out of the area where the speeches were held, I ran smack into a physical tussle involving a man in a Rand Paul t-shirt and another in a shirt bearing the name of Paul's Democratic opponent in the Senate race, Jack Conway. The police had to step in to break that one up.
Most of the rally was much less dramatic than that, however. Or at least the drama was much more scripted and less requiring of law enforcement. Conway's camp rolled into Fancy Farm with its "Rand Paul's Waffle House" booth, a send up of the restaurant's famous menu that presents what the Conway campaign calls Paul's many flip-flops as he's shifted his rhetoric slightly more towards the mainstream as the campaign has gone on.
Paul's campaign had its own props on scene, handing out "cap and trade" flip flops that supporters were supposed to slap together as a kind of down-home vuvuzuela. Paul's speech was also marked by some props of its own, including eight giant red boxes carried by supporters that were supposed to suggest the size of the federal tax code.
As for the speeches themselves, thanks to last year's gaffe of sorts by Conway -- he responded to the hecklers at the 2009 Fancy Farm with the line "I'm one tough son of a bitch," a mild bit of profanity that produced apoplexy among the Republicans and a new "no cursing" rule at the picnic -- the addresses were well-rehearsed and the speakers delivering them largely ignored the hecklers and booers that make Fancy Farm what it is.
Classically, the Fancy Farm event has been dominated by Democrats and this year was no different. Conway had dozens of supporters on scene, as well as help from teachers and teamster union members who packed the crowd with yellow Conway t-shirts.
Paul was well-represented, too, but interestingly not by the group most associated with him. I could find no organized group of tea partiers at Fancy Farm, though there were a few tricorn hats here and there. It was a surprise, and even a Republican official on scene acknowledged that there seemed to be a poor showing from the tea party groups that helped Paul steamroll the establishment GOP to win his party's nomination this year.
Despite the toned-down speechifying, there was a special excitement in the air in western Kentucky Saturday that made Fancy Farm one of the more interesting moments of the 2010 campaign. The picnic has been around for 130 years -- and a mainstay of Kentucky politics for a large part of that time. Yet it was only this year, with all eyes on Paul and the Senate race, that Fancy Farm finally got the recognition regulars to the event believe it deserves.
For the first time ever, the event was broadcast live across Kentucky on the state's public television network. And, as a beaming Mark Wilson -- head of the Fancy Farm picnic political committee -- told the crowd gathered in the sweltering heat Saturday, that wasn't the only first for this year's Fancy Farm.
"C-Span is here!" Wilson proclaimed. "Yes folks, C-Span."
"We have arrived," he said.
The TPM Poll Average shows Paul leading Conway 46.3-41.0 in Kentucky's Senate race.