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At Fancy Farm, old jabs at McConnell take on new meaning amid health concerns

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell speaks at the Graves County Republican Party Breakfast in Mayfield, Ky. on Saturday.
Ryan C. Hermens
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Lexington Herald-Leader/Tribune News Service via Getty Images
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell speaks at the Graves County Republican Party Breakfast in Mayfield, Ky. on Saturday.

Kentucky's Fancy Farm picnic has long been known for its raucousness so — in typical Fancy Farm fashion — Sen. Mitch McConnell was met with a mixed bag of cheers and boos at the state's premiere political event over the weekend.

But among the loudest and longest interruptions were chants calling for his retirement.

On Saturday, McConnell, 81, spoke at the 143rd Fancy Farm picnic, where Republicans and Democrats face off to pitch to thousands of Kentucky voters. The event is known for getting lively — hurling insults, one-line zingers and raucous crowds are part of the tradition.

"Friends, I'll be honest it's not hard for Republicans to look good these days," McConnell said before audience members, which included many Democrats, yelled out "retire" and "ditch Mitch."

In response to the jeers, a spokesperson for McConnell's office told NPR on Monday, "It wouldn't be Fancy Farm if Democrats weren't heckling every Republican and vice versa – it's been a very spirited event for decades."

Before McConnell took the stage, speeches from Kentucky's Democratic governor, Andy Beshear, and Republican Attorney General Daniel Cameron were also met with loud booing.

McConnell, who is Kentucky's longest serving senator, has been heckled to step down from office before at the same event. But this year's calls to retire come amid growing concern and speculation over his health and age.

Less than two weeks ago, McConnell abruptly froze for about 30 seconds during his weekly news conference. In March, the Kentucky senator spent five days in the hospital after tripping at a dinner event and suffered a concussion and minor rib fracture.

Linda Blackford, an opinion columnist for the Lexington Herald-Leader, said Kentucky residents were curious to see if McConnell would show up to the event given his recent health scare. On Saturday, Blackford, who attended McConnell's afternoon speech, said he met expectations.

"He looked a little shaky on his feet, a little frail, but he gave a very strong speech," she said.

McConnell ignored the heckling and pressed on with his speech — where he took jabs at Beshear, as well as President Joe Biden. Meanwhile, former President Donald Trump was not mentioned at all.

The senator also received multiple rounds of applause while on stage, especially when he said, "In the Senate, I'm working to make sure Kentucky punches above its weight."

Blackford said McConnell's popularity among Republicans in his state appeared to overshadow concerns over his health this weekend.

"He's just sort of the Godfather figure, as it were, for a lot of Kentuckians. So I don't think people at Fancy Farm are really talking about it that much," she said, referring to McConnell's age.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Juliana Kim
Juliana Kim is a weekend reporter for Digital News, where she adds context to the news of the day and brings her enterprise skills to NPR's signature journalism.