Springtime in Kentucky means trees blooming, horses racing and, in most years, politicians jockeying for position ahead of the late May primary election. This year, with the biggest political prize in Kentucky up for grabs, Republican Gov. Matt Bevin is seeking a second term and three prominent Democrats are among those competing for a chance to unseat him. They covered much of the same ground while socializing at Churchill on Saturday.
For politicians flocking to the track, Derby Day presents opportunities and limitations. It's a chance to be seen as TV crews look for notables to interview. There are seemingly countless hands to shake, but retail politicking can offer mixed results. With people from around the country converging on the Louisville track, a candidate is as likely to encounter a non-Kentuckian as they are someone who's eligible to vote for them.
"They don't have signs saying, 'I vote in Nicholas County,'" said Doug Alexander, who was press secretary for Wallace Wilkinson when he was Kentucky's governor. Pressing through the crowds is exhausting and time consuming. But some candidates said it has value.
State Attorney General Andy Beshear, among the Democrats looking to unseat Bevin, said he walked 8 miles (13 kilometers) at last year's Derby while making the rounds at the sprawling track. "It never hurts to have tens of thousands of Kentuckians all under one roof," he said.
Adam Edelen, another prominent Democrat in the race, said he posed for scores of selfies with well-wishers. "What's more important than being seen is to be seen by Kentuckians enjoying this event in an authentic way," said Edelen, a former state auditor.
Kentucky House Minority Floor Leader Rocky Adkins, another leading Democratic gubernatorial contender, said it's a chance to make brief connections that might make lasting impressions with voters. He saw it as a chance to gauge how he's faring with voters as he waded through the crowds.
"You kind of get a sense of the amount of on-the-ground support you've got," he said. The more gentrified sections of Churchill are where many politicians tend to gravitate. There, politicians have a chance to hang out with the well-heeled — people who can make generous donations to campaigns and introduce them to others so inclined. It's also a chance promote the state to business prospects that could bring jobs and tax revenue.
The wealthy and well-connected take in the Derby Day splendors from the comfort of spacious areas offering panoramic views of the horse race and all the pageantry surrounding it. "The best places to campaign are the upper floors at Churchill Downs," longtime Kentucky political commentator Al Cross said.
It helps that it's a relaxed atmosphere with plenty of food, drink, and socializing. "One great thing about visiting the track, just about everyone you meet is in a good mood and in a good headspace about parting with their money," GOP strategist Scott Jennings said.
Democratic strategist Mark Riddle agreed it's premium territory for glad-handing but thought the odds are against a big payoff. "There's a lot of people there who are interested in politics," he said. "And it never hurts to do politicking and shake their hands and meet some new people. But I'm not sure how memorable any of it is."
The connections made at Derby can provide political dividends, but Cross said he doubts that Derby Day "makes the cash register ring that much." "By the time Derby has arrived, most of the fundraising is over" for the primaries, he said. "People have picked their horses, so to speak, and it's more a matter of donor maintenance."
It's also a chance for politicians to shuck some of the formalities of running for office. "It's an opportunity to be seen through a different sort of lens — not being just a serious politician, just a person who's trying to have some fun on Derby Day," Cross said.
For the governor, the power of incumbency comes into play. He basks in the national TV spotlight when presenting the trophy to the Derby winner's ownership connections. It's also a chance to make a pitch for the Bluegrass State.
During the trophy presentation Saturday, Bevin touted Kentucky as the home of fast cars and horses and for its hospitality. He plugged the state's engineering and manufacturing sectors — a priority of his since taking office. He spoke over a booing crowd after a controversial outcome in the race. Maximum Security led all the way and finished first, only to be disqualified for interference. Long-shot Country House was declared the winner.
Governors have long used Derby festivities as a business recruitment tool. Guest lists can include CEOs and other top business executives. "It's what I call Kentucky's day in the sun," said former Kentucky Gov. Paul Patton. "And I think it's appropriate to take every advantage of that."
Derby season also shows that Kentuckians know how to throw a party. "I've had people tell me, 'I've been at parties in Hollywood and I've been at parties in New York, but I've never been to a party like this,'" Patton said.