- Associated Press - Wednesday, August 3, 2016

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) - Democratic U.S. Senate challenger Jim Gray will be outnumbered when he takes the stage for his showdown against Republican Sen. Rand Paul at the Fancy Farm picnic Saturday.

Two leading Democrats - Attorney General Andy Beshear and Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes - confirmed Wednesday that they are skipping Kentucky’s premier political event.

With their absence, Republicans will boast an even more lopsided advantage on stage for speeches at the raucous event in western Kentucky that includes sign-toting, noisy hecklers.

Beshear and Grimes, both Fancy Farm veterans, are citing family commitments as reasons for missing the church picnic, known for its spicy political speeches and barbecue.

Beshear said he’ll be attending his children’s first-ever play Saturday. Grimes said she wants to spend time with her husband, Andrew, before he leaves on a business trip.

Both are attending Democratic events leading up to Saturday’s picnic.

“After the last two years running for AG, it’s important to spend the last weekend before school starts with my kids at their play,” Beshear said in a statement.

Their absence means Paul will have plenty more backup support than Gray as the Senate campaign rivals make their case at the traditional kickoff of Kentucky’s fall campaign. Paul, who is seeking a second Senate term, and Gray will square off in the featured event of the speeches.

Gray campaign spokeswoman Cathy Lindsey said the Lexington mayor is looking forward to the chance to outline his plans for Kentucky. She said Gray has enjoyed strong support from Beshear and Grimes during the campaign.

“I fully support the Democratic ticket and expect great success this fall,” Beshear said. “While I obviously like and support all our candidates, I love my kids.”

But Republicans pounced on the absence of two leading Democrats from a highly partisan event in a part of the state trending heavily toward the GOP.

“The Democrat Party is on the verge of becoming a regional party - a Louisville- and Lexington-specific party,” said Tres Watson, a state Republican Party spokesman.

Republican dominance on stage reflects the party’s election successes. Western Kentucky, once a Democratic stronghold, has been a key contributor to GOP victories statewide.

“Republicans for years went out there and participated when they were getting stomped in west Kentucky elections,” Watson said. “Now that the tables have turned, the Democrats don’t want to go out there.”

Other scheduled speakers Saturday include Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Gov. Matt Bevin, both Republicans. Other Republicans expected on stage include state Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles, state Treasurer Allison Ball and state Auditor Mike Harmon. GOP and Democratic candidates for local statehouse seats and a congressional seat also will be featured.

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