Fancy Farm, Ky. — It’s not often that someone who’s been in Washington for 30 years calls himself the candidate of change, but that’s what Mitch McConnell did this past weekend, when the country’s most high-profile Senate race descended on a tiny town in western Kentucky.
On Saturday, in an open shed on a stage surrounded by a white picket fence, the Republican incumbent squared off for the first time with his Democratic challenger, 35-year-old Alison Lundergan Grimes, at the annual Fancy Farm picnic. The event, which serves as the unofficial kickoff of the fall election season, is western Kentucky’s version of a political convention: Formalities are tossed aside. The crowd heckles, boos, and cheers the political candidates who take the stage, as pork and mutton are barbecued nearby. Reaching the picnic, which is held on the grounds of a Catholic church, requires snaking through miles of cornfields that blanket western Kentucky. This year, political signs for both candidates lined the roads as far as two miles away.
McConnell’s supporters, clad in red, occupied one side of the shed waving white “Team Mitch” signs. Grimes’s backers, wearing blue, occupied the other. They hoisted an array of signs: “Team Switch,” “Hypo-Critch,” and “Granny for Grimes.” A handful of men dressed as coal miners ambled through the crowd with placards slung around their necks that read “European model.” The Republican party of Kentucky bused them in to mock Grimes, who featured a European model
dressed as a coal miner in a newspaper ad.
In a nearby shed, another group of attendees escaped the sweltering heat to play bingo. Others milled around, eating barbecue and playing carnival games. Though there was no official attendance tally, event organizers said they expected to see about 20,000 people pass through.
McConnell and Grimes were the big draw. On Saturday, they brought the same message: It’s time for change. McConnell promised it in the form of a Republican-led Senate that would serve as a bulwark against the Obama administration. Dressed in khakis and a pale-yellow dress shirt, he told the raucous crowd, “There’s only one way, just one way to change America in 2014; there’s only one way to begin to go in a different direction. That’s to change the Senate and make me the leader of a new majority to take America in a different direction.” Grimes, he said, is merely “a new face for the status quo.”
“Oddly enough,” McConnell tells me in an interview, “even though I’ve been around for a while, if you want change, I’m the vote you oughta cast.”
McConnell and Grimes are a study in contrasts. She is young, pretty, and charismatic. He, at 72, has been in Washington nearly as long as she has been alive, was once described as having “the charisma of an oyster,” and often has the look of a disapproving father.
That’s the look he was wearing as Grimes, clad in a navy dress and high heels, strode to the lectern and welcomed the crowd to “Senator McConnell’s retirement party.” Her message is simple: McConnell has been in Washington for three decades and has lost sight of his constituents in Kentucky. “Thanks to you,” she said of him, “D.C. stands for ‘doesn’t care.’”
Their contest will be a referendum on whether President Obama, whose approval rating hovers around 30 percent in the Bluegrass State, and with whom McConnell is trying to saddle Grimes, is more unpopular than his Republican opponents and the Washington establishment more broadly.
Grimes has used her youth and gender as battering rams in the campaign, and Saturday was no exception. “Thirty-five is my age,” she said. “That’s also Mitch McConnell’s approval rating.” She cast him as an opponent of gender equality, arguing that “only one of us believes women deserve equal pay for equal work.” She compare him to a character from the television show Mad Men and warned that the women of Kentucky are set to toss him out of office.