FANCY FARM, Ky. (AP) — Two Republicans expected to compete to lead their party's ticket in 2023 took turns Saturday accusing Kentucky's Democratic governor of infringing on individual liberties with his pandemic-related restrictions, pressing GOP themes on the stage of the state's premier political event.
Speaking at the Fancy Farm picnic in western Kentucky, Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles and state Auditor Mike Harmon accused Gov. Andy Beshear of overreaching with his now-lifted restrictions on businesses and gatherings to try to contain COVID-19.
The attacks against Beshear's handling of the coronavirus outbreak - a crisis that has spanned most of his term - came as Kentucky faces its worst outbreak of COVID-19 cases in months, fueled by the highly contagious delta variant. Republican speakers didn't talk about the resurgence, instead repudiating Beshear's executive actions. The governor says his decisions saved lives.
“Like you, I was caught off-guard when Beshear responded to COVID by violating our basic rights and individual liberties by becoming the shutdown governor,” Quarles said in a hard-hitting speech.
In his speech, Harmon said: “In 2023, the voters of Kentucky will have a chance to help Andy Beshear in the same way his policies helped many of them -- by sending him home.”
Harmon has already announced he’s running for governor in 2023 and Quarles is seriously considering the state's marquee race. Several other Republicans are considering bids for governor. Beshear has said he intends to seek a second term.
With virus cases soaring to the highest levels in months, Beshear and Lt. Gov. Jacqueline Coleman skipped the picnic. Graves County - where the picnic is held - is in the red zone for COVID-19 cases, signaling a severe level of community spread.
Beshear didn't respond directly to the Republican attacks Saturday, instead issuing a statement saying the focus should be on getting more Kentuckians vaccinated against the virus.
“At a time when we have already lost 7,300 Kentuckians to COVID-19 and the delta variant is increasing cases and hospitalizations at an alarming rate, my hope is that the speakers spent more time encouraging folks to get vaccinated than they did attacking me,” Beshear said.
That wasn't the case, with Republicans piling on by criticizing the governor for the state's backlogged unemployment insurance system and the continuation of extra jobless benefits.
Republican Attorney General Daniel Cameron, who has waged legal fights over Beshear's virus restrictions, said: “The big-government Democrats and bureaucrats in Frankfort and Washington want you to follow the science, so long as it's their science that you're following. But as your attorney general, I'm making sure we follow the science and the Constitution.”
Few people at the political event wore masks. The Graves County Health Department attended the event to offer coronavirus vaccines and answer questions, the Courier Journal reported.
Meanwhile, the absence of not only Beshear and Coleman but also the usual throng of Democratic supporters turned the political event into a Republican rally featuring speeches by GOP officeholders in a state that is trending Republican.
Quarles said the state needs a governor who will “not lock us down” and who respects "individual liberty.” The governor, he said, picked “winners and losers” with inconsistent COVID policies.
“He does deserve one accomplishment," Quarles said. "Since he drove so many Kentuckians out of state for business - like getting their hair cut, buying groceries, and going out to eat - he does deserve the Tennessee chamber of commerce man of the year award.”
In his speech, U.S. Rep. James Comer added intrigue to the 2023 jockeying among Republicans.
“There are two names that I think everyone in Kentucky is going to be hearing a lot about ... in 2023, and those are Ambassador Kelly Craft and my very good friend, state Sen. Max Wise from Campbellsville,” Comer said.
Craft, a former United Nations ambassador, was the keynote speaker at a Republican dinner on Friday in western Kentucky. Afterward, she said she's “seriously considering” a run for governor, the Lexington Herald-Leader reported. Wise is chairman of the Senate Education Committee.
Comer has said he currently has no plans to run for governor in 2023, saying his sights are on another prize - the chairmanship of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform.
He currently is ranking Republican on the oversight panel - the chamber’s main investigative committee - but would be in line to become chairman if the GOP retakes the House in 2022.
Kentucky’s U.S. senators, Republicans Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul, also missed the Fancy Farm picnic because the Senate was in session Saturday to work on a massive infrastructure package.
McConnell, a mainstay at the picnic for decades, still got in a potshot at Beshear and President Joe Biden in a recorded message shown on Kentucky Educational Television, which carried the picnic speeches.
“We don’t really care, frankly, if the governor and lieutenant governor were too chicken to pay the Biden gas prices to drive out here and take their lumps,” McConnell said.
The political speeches at Fancy Farm - a rite of passage for statewide officeholders in the Bluegrass State - resumed Saturday after a one-year hiatus. Last year’s picnic was scaled back and the political speeches were canceled because of the pandemic.