When Gov. Andy Beshear said he and Lt. Gov. Jacqueline Coleman wouldn’t attend the Aug. 7 Fancy Farm Picnic because there are no elections this year and they wanted some family time, they left Democrats unrepresented at the annual political speaking event that is nationally known for its partisan and intra-party clashes, even in non-election years.
For some, it was a signal that Kentucky Democrats’ last remaining statewide officeholders had given up on West Kentucky, known as “the Gibraltar of Democracy” until a decades-long shift driven by social issues made the region perhaps the most important in turning Kentucky from a purple state into a red one with blue urban enclaves, like most of the nation.
The conclusion that Beshear had given up became easier to draw when Louisville Democrats scheduled their own “Fancyville” event on Aug. 7, throwing sand in the gears of Democrats who try to bridge Kentucky’s growing rural-urban divide. Not a good look.
But Beshear knows that Democrats still need to show up in rural places, to keep Republicans from piling up huge margins like Donald Trump did in key swing states in 2016. In West Kentucky, which is closer to Memphis and St. Louis than it is to Louisville and often feels neglected, showing up is especially important for a governor.
Beshear’s Republican predecessor, Matt Bevin, stiffed Fancy Farm not only in the non-election year of 2017, but in 2018. That year, Beshear was running for Bevin’s job, and said of him, “If you’re not willing to come down here where my family roots are, to Western Kentucky, to see all of our families, I think it’s time you moved back to New Hampshire.”
This year, a statement from Beshear’s office said he would be “with his family making up for opportunities lost during the pandemic,” but the last line of the statement may have alluded to another reason: “With the aggressive rise in the delta variant and the vaccination rate in the region, the governor and lieutenant governor encourage anyone who plans on attending to get vaccinated as soon as possible.”
Beshear’s governorship has been defined by the pandemic. He has handled it well, generally speaking, and has earned job-approval ratios far beyond his tiny election margin. The last public survey, taken by a Republican pollster in January, gave him 50% approval and 31% disapproval; another poll that month found 83% approved his handling of the pandemic.
But now the pandemic is more complicated. Vaccinations slowed, giving a much more contagious variant of the coronavirus room to run — and keep mutating, perhaps even into stronger variants. School is about to start, and the biggest debate around Kentucky and the rest of the country is what sort of mask requirements to impose on students and employees who figured they wouldn’t have to worry much about the virus.
Beshear has recommended masks for the unvaccinated, but has left the decisions up to local school officials, acknowledging, “That may mean that you’ve got to go through some tough school-board meetings.”
There’s no maybe about it; opponents of masking are already descending on board meetings, and beyond the schools, things are getting crazier. In Mount Juliet, Tennessee, near Nashville, the pastor of a large church said he would ask masked people to leave his building; earlier, he called the pandemic “fake” and vaccines “a dangerous scam.”
The pandemic, and such ridiculous reactions to it, are likely to get worse, and Beshear surely knew that when he said July 23 that he wasn’t going to Fancy Farm. He knew that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was under pressure to change its masking recommendations, which it did July 27, advising vaccinated people to “wear a mask indoors in public if you are in an area of substantial or high transmission.”
For a governor, a trip to Fancy Farm isn’t just a speech in an open-air pavilion. There are preliminary events indoors, and a governor needs to work the crowds and do lots of close-up talking. That’s a recipe for virus transmission, especially in the counties with those events, where infection rates are high and vaccination rates are not (only 35% of people in Graves County have received at least one dose). Beshear would have to choose between setting a good example and a bad example, and how he handled it might make more news than any speech.
The pandemic is more politically fraught than ever. Republican statewide officeholders say they won’t enforce Beshear’s order for masking in state offices. Even Sen. Mitch McConnell, who has been the best example of Republican responsibility regarding masks and vaccines, is trying to make political hay out of the situation by blaming President Biden for the vaccination slowdown. Loud voices in McConnell’s own party are much more responsible. Beshear’s job has gotten tougher, and a trip to Fancy Farm (or “Fancyville”) would make it even more so.