Republicans running for governor in 2023 took the stage at Kentucky’s biggest political event Saturday, criticizing Gov. Andy Beshear’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic while offering support for the Democratic governor’s recovery efforts after historic flooding and tornadoes.
While his challengers took aim at him, Beshear spent the day comforting families displaced by the flooding that hit the Appalachian region more than a week ago, killing 37. Beshear visited two state parks where some of the suddenly homeless have taken refuge .
“Today I am in our state parks spending time with our families in eastern Kentucky who have been displaced by the devastating flooding,” Beshear posted on social media. “These Kentuckians have been through the unthinkable. My priority is to be there for them.”
Last December, deadly tornadoes tore through parts of western Kentucky. The political speech at the annual Fancy Farm picnic — the traditional start of the fall campaign — was held about 10 miles (16 kilometers) from Mayfield, which took a direct hit from the tornado.
Responding to the event’s reputation for fracas, Republicans seeking to unseat Beshear took aim at the governor’s restrictions on businesses and gatherings in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The governor said his actions saved lives at a dangerous time when vaccines were not available. The GOP-led state legislature limited the governor’s virus policymaking authority in a case settled by the state Supreme Court.
GOP gubernatorial candidate Ryan Quarles referred to Beshear as the “shutdown governor.”
“It shut down our economy,” said Quarles, the state’s agriculture commissioner. “It closed our mom and pop stores. It killed countless jobs and kept the big boxes open.
“Friends, just because we’ve experienced a global pandemic doesn’t mean our rights, freedoms and liberties have to be thrown out the window,” he added.
In his speech, Kentucky Democratic Party Chairman Colmon Elridge defended Beshear, who consistently receives strong approval ratings from Kentuckians in polls. Elridge praised Beshear’s efforts to lead recovery efforts in tornado-ravaged western Kentucky and said he would do the same for flood victims in the state’s Appalachian region.
“Once again, our governor is showing us through his actions how we show up in times of disaster and embrace our fellow Kentuckians, 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 originally planned a visit to Israel to coincide with the Fancy Farm picnic. He canceled this trip after the massive flooding that hit eastern Kentucky.
The Fancy Farm stage was dominated by Republican officials — reflecting the GOP’s electoral dominance. The event is a rite of passage for candidates across the state, who are tested in stump-style speeches in the August heat while facing jeers and boos from partisans of the other party.
The political attacks were marked by calls for continued public support for people rebuilding from tornadoes and facing the same daunting task in flood-hit areas.
“We may be laughing a little bit today, but whether we’re Republicans or Democrats, know that we’re with you,” GOP gubernatorial candidate Daniel Cameron said. “When natural disasters strike, we take off our party hats and support each other. We help repair and we help rebuild.”
Cameron then turned to promoting his candidacy. He touted his support of former President Donald Trump and his work as the state’s attorney general to defend Kentucky’s anti-abortion laws and fight the Biden administration’s policies in court.
“I’m the best candidate and the only candidate who can beat Andy Beshear next fall,” Cameron said.
Two other GOP gubernatorial candidates also hung out in the crowd and a statewide television audience watching — state Comptroller Mike Harmon and state Rep. Savannah Maddox.
Absent from Saturday’s political speech was Kentucky’s most powerful Republican, Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell. A supporter of the picnic for decades, McConnell enjoys the verbal battle, but missed the event due to Senate duties. In a Senate speech on Saturday, McConnell said the federal role in the long recovery of flood-damaged areas will increase once rebuilding begins.
“I will soon be visiting the area myself to meet with flood victims and hear their concerns,” McConnell said. “Then I’ll take what I hear from my constituents back to Washington and make sure we stand with them as we rebuild bigger and better than before.”
Biden declared a federal disaster to direct relief money to hard-hit Kentucky counties.