Aside from the barbecue, the focus at Saturday's annual Fancy Farm Picnic in Kentucky was on Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Democratic Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, who appeared together for the first time since Grimes announced her Senate campaign early last month. Both candidates turned in strong performances, previewing just how nasty this campaign is likely to get over the next year, but local and national outlets seemed most impressed with businessman Matt Bevin, McConnell's tea party primary challenger, who exceeded low expectations for a first-time candidate.
After finishing his own address and sticking around to watch Grimes perform, McConnell and his supporters left the event before Bevin got the chance to take the podium. But every indication from press coverage is that if he had stayed, he may not have liked what he saw.
"Fancy Farm is a tough place to make a debut speech in front of a non-friendly crowd. Someone forgot to tell Matt Bevin that," wrote Ryan Alessi of cn|2's Pure Politics, a political blog associated with a Kentucky cable television station.
The Louisville Courier-Journal’s Joseph Gerth, one of the state's top political columnists, added: "Bevin delivered what may have been the sharpest attack of the day, urging McConnell to 'be a man' and stand up to the President.
'I don't intend to run to the right of Mitch McConnell. I don't intend to run to the left of Mitch McConnell. I intend to run straight over the top of Mitch McConnell and right into the U.S. Senate,' Bevin said in his speech."
The Huffington Post's Howard Fineman, who spent the early part of his career working for the Courier-Journal, agreed, writing Saturday night: "Let's cut to the chase. The news from Fancy Farm, the big Kentucky political picnic, is that Matt Bevin … does not, at first glance, seem to be a kook, a crank or a lightweight. In fact, in his first major appearance on a political stage, the wealthy Louisville businessman -- a native of New Hampshire who moved to Kentucky in the late 1990s -- was poised, focused, and more than a little savvy about what he's up against when he faces McConnell in the GOP Senate primary next spring."
The Lexington Herald-Leader's Tom Eblen praised Grimes as well, noting that "Both of these challengers showed they could do considerable damage to McConnell's reputation. But can they beat him?"
WHAS-TV in Louisville also gave Grimes a positive review, arguing that she "delivered a bevy of hard hitting lines one especially directed to those touting her lack of experience. 'Do I need to apologize for having more government experience than Rand Paul,' she asked."
But, WHAS adds, "Grimes' best line that many reacted to was Senator McConnell's stance on healthcare and the lack of passing bills in America. 'If doctors told Senator McConnell he had a kidney stone, he'd refuse to pass it,' she said to thunderous applause."
Politico noted that Grimes "delivered an assured, confident address."
McConnell, meanwhile, appeared "relaxed" and confident, according to the Politico story. Several outlets noted that he didn't mention either of his opponents by name, but his early reference to Grimes' father, a former chairman of the Kentucky Democratic Party, received mixed reviews. McConnell ribbed Jerry Lundergan for donating to disgraced former Rep. Anthony Weiner's New York mayoral campaign.
Eblen said that McConnell did what he needed to do, in going after Obama and the national party, but he criticized the minority leader for failing to provide a positive argument for his reelection. "What he didn't do was cite accomplishments, other than obstructing Obama and joining other Republicans in opposing an Army Corps of Engineers effort to restrict boating and fishing below Cumberland River dams," Eblen wrote.
BuzzFeed reported that the famously rowdy crowd was equally divided between Grimes and McConnell supporters, with a much smaller contingent representing Bevin, but they gave an edge to Grimes' backers. "Grimes supporters were more aggressive in their attacks on McConnell as a candidate. Despite her initial rocky announcement for the race and what will be battle against McConnell's formidable political machine in this conservative state, Grimes voters were feeling good about their chances."