FANCY FARM, Ky. (AP) — Republicans running for governor in 2023 took the stage at Kentucky's biggest political event Saturday, bashing Gov. Andy Beshear's handling of the COVID-19 pandemic while offering support for recovery efforts that the Democratic governor is leading in the wake of historic flooding and tornadoes.
While his challengers aimed zingers at him, Beshear spent the day consoling families displaced by flash flooding that swamped the Appalachian region more than a week ago, killing 37. Beshear visited two state parks where some of the suddenly homeless took refuge.
“Today I’m at our state parks, spending time with our eastern Kentucky families who have been displaced from the catastrophic flooding," Beshear posted on social media. "These Kentuckians have been through the unimaginable. My priority is being there for them.”
Last December, deadly tornadoes tore through parts of western Kentucky. The political speaking at the annual Fancy Farm picnic — the traditional start of the fall campaign — took place about 10 miles (16 kilometer) from Mayfield, which took a direct hit from a tornado.
Living up to the event's reputation for edgy attacks, Republicans wanting to unseat Beshear took aim at restrictions that the governor imposed on businesses and gatherings in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The governor has said his actions saved lives at a perilous time when vaccines were not available. The state's GOP-led legislature reined in the governor's virus policymaking power in a case settled by the state's Supreme Court.
GOP gubernatorial hopeful Ryan Quarles referred to Beshear as the "shutdown governor."
“He shut down our economy,” said Quarles, the state's agriculture commissioner. "He shut down our ‘mom and pop’ stores. He killed countless jobs and kept the big box stores open.
“Folks, just because we lived through a global pandemic doesn't mean that our rights, our freedoms and liberties should be tossed out the window,” he added.
In his speech, Kentucky Democratic Party Chairman Colmon Elridge came to the defense of Beshear, who consistently receives strong approval ratings from Kentuckians in polls. Elridge praised Beshear's efforts in leading recovery efforts in tornado-ravaged western Kentucky and said he'll do the same for flood victims in the state's Appalachian region.
“Once again, our governor is showing through his actions how we show up in moments of devastation and embrace our fellow Kentuckian, not as Democrats or Republicans, but as Kentuckians,” Elridge said.
Beshear was already a committed no-show for the state's premiere political event. The governor initially planned a visit to Israel that coincided with the Fancy Farm picnic. He canceled that trip after the massive flooding hit eastern Kentucky.
The Fancy Farm stage was dominated by Republican officeholders — reflecting the GOP's electoral dominance. The event is a rite of passage for statewide candidates, who are tested in stump-style speeches in the August heat while facing taunts and shouts from partisans from the other party.
The political attacks were punctuated by calls for continued public support for people rebuilding from tornadoes and facing the same daunting task in flood-ravaged areas.
“We might be sharing a few laughs today, but whether we’re Republican or Democrat, know that we are with you," said GOP gubernatorial hopeful Daniel Cameron. "When natural disasters strike, we take off our partisan hats and we root for each other. We help repair and we help rebuild.”
Cameron then shifted into promoting his candidacy. He touted his endorsement from former President Donald Trump and his work as the state's attorney general in defending Kentucky’s anti-abortion laws and fighting Biden administration policies in court.
“I am the best candidate and the only candidate that can beat Andy Beshear next fall,” Cameron said.
Two other GOP gubernatorial candidates also made pitches to the crowd and a statewide television audience that watched — state Auditor Mike Harmon and state Rep. Savannah Maddox.
Missing from the political speaking Saturday was Kentucky's most powerful Republican, Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell. A picnic mainstay for decades, McConnell relishes the verbal combat but missed the event because of Senate duties. In a Senate speech Saturday, McConnell said the federal role in the long recovery for flood-damaged areas will grow once the rebuilding begins.
“Soon I’ll visit the region myself to meet with flood victims and listen to their concerns," McConnell said. "Then I’ll take what I hear from my constituents back to Washington and ensure we stand by their side as we rebuild bigger and better than before.”
Biden declared a federal disaster to direct relief money to hard-hit Kentucky counties.
Bruce Schreiner, The Associated Press