FRANKFORT, Ky. -- It's a showdown that's been boiling for years — Republican Gov. Matt Bevin and Democratic Attorney General Andy Beshear competing in the cauldron of Kentucky's foremost political event.
As they prepare to square off in the summer heat Saturday at the Fancy Farm picnic, the governor's race already has the makings of a grudge match. It's certainly well-suited to an event where politicians are encouraged to let rhetorical flourishes fly.
Bevin vs. Beshear could take its place among the most bitter rivalries in the long history of political stump speaking at the western Kentucky picnic.
The two have been pounding each other with verbal and legal jabs for more than three years. Beshear has filed lawsuits challenging executive actions by Bevin. The governor, in turn, extends his aversion for Beshear to his father, Bevin's predecessor as governor.
The two rivals have never hidden their contempt for each other — so much so that they might even have to tone it down to match the playful atmosphere at Fancy Farm.
"There's always been a certain level of vitriol at the political speaking, but it has generally been tempered with humor and the sense that this is really performance art," said longtime Kentucky political commentator Al Cross.
"I'm afraid this year there's going to be an abundance of vitriol, because Beshear and Bevin dislike each other in a way that two people running for governor haven't for a very long time."
The picnic traditionally serves as the launching pad for Kentucky's fall campaign season. With the speeches broadcast live on statewide television, the stakes will be high. Heckling partisans trying to rattle the opposition will serve as a noisy backdrop.
Plenty of other subplots surround this year's picnic.
The attorney general's race between Republican Daniel Cameron and Democrat Greg Stumbo has turned nasty and personal. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell might face taunts of "Moscow Mitch" from Democrats for his handling of election security legislation. McConnell — who is running for reelection in 2020 — has pushed back hard against his critics, likening the attacks to "modern-day McCarthyism."
"When you add the recent controversy with McConnell, it just adds fuel to the fire," Cross said.
Democrat Amy McGrath, who is running for McConnell's seat, isn't attending the Fancy Farm picnic but took her own shot at the Republican incumbent with a TV ad that started running Friday in western Kentucky. In the ad, McGrath blames McConnell for turning Washington "into something we all despise," and says the nation's path to resetting its "moral compass" includes defeating the Republican senator.
But the main event for Kentucky voters and political junkies alike on Saturday will be back-to-back speeches by Bevin and Beshear. Is Beshear, the son of former two-term Gov. Steve Beshear, ready to deliver a forceful message as leader of a party that's been reeling in Kentucky? Will Bevin stick to a script or veer off into extemporaneous remarks?
The outcome could shape the next three months of campaigning. Strategists on both sides see the race as a tossup and view Fancy Farm as a prime opportunity to crystallize campaign themes and make nasty labels stick to opponents — or re-set the race altogether.
"The biggest issue for Bevin is recovering enough GOP voters to win following a scary primary result," said GOP strategist Scott Jennings.
"And the biggest one for Beshear is not being trapped in the vortex of a national party that has basically destroyed Kentucky Democrats in statewide races for several years."
Both sides sound confident heading into the showdown.
Beshear stresses his family's roots in western Kentucky, where his father grew up. Bevin campaign manager Davis Paine replies that the Beshears "left western Kentucky long ago when the Democratic Party did. The values that (rural voters) hold dear don't align with what the current Democratic Party is."
Beshear's campaign is ready for Bevin to talk up his ties to President Donald Trump. Beshear campaign manager Eric Hyers said Bevin's record as governor is "so miserable and pathetic that he feels he needs to hide behind his national party leaders."
Democratic strategist Mark Riddle agrees the stakes are elevated this year. Beyond the normal barbs typically flung from the Fancy Farm stage, he said he hopes both candidates offer substantive remarks about how they want to lead the state.