Forget 2016. The craziest Republican primary is wrapping up in a few hours, and unless you’re from Kentucky, you missed it.
It’s a three-way face-off culminating with domestic violence allegations and followed by, maybe, an improbable political resurrection.
Either way, it could make the pending Republican presidential fight look like an episode from Leave It to Beaver.
In case you haven’t been rapt by the primary to end all primaries, a quick recap: Things started off simple.
Hal Heiner, a former Louisville City Councilman who lost a mayoral bid in 2010, was the first to hop into the race. Agriculture Commissioner James Comer followed him in short order. And, for the heck of it, retired state Supreme Court justice Will Scott got in there too.
But then—plot twist!—Matt Bevin, who unsuccessfully tried to primary Sen. Mitch McConnell in 2014, entered the race a few hours before the filing deadline.
Now, in 2014, Bevin lost badly to McConnell despite spending $5.3 million—including $1.6 million of his own money.
In the process, McConnell and his allies lambasted the Tea Party favorite by running relentless attack ads against him.
Meaning Bevin’s new rivals had an immediate head start in the oppo department.
“Literally 2/3 of the hits on Bevin are in the research book and will stay in the book,” one anonymous McConnell adviser told CNN after the powerful senator coasted to a primary win. “They just weren't necessary, because he became defined.”
But since conceding that race last May, Bevin’s definition has changed.
That’s because all the McConnell negativity in the world pales—pales like a tiny, fragile, shrinking little violet—in comparison with the truly remarkable level of conflict that has come to dominate the fight between Comer and Heiner.
On May 4 2015, the Courier-Journal reported that Comer’s ex-girlfriend said she was so physically and mentally abused during their two-year relationship that she had to leave Kentucky to get away from the memories. She wrote the paper a letter about the relationship.
“The fact that I am speaking out now is not something I approached lightly,” she wrote. “As a matter of fact, I feel under great duress in doing it now. I do not want to be involved in this. This letter will be the last thing that I say about Jamie Comer and my past relationship.”
Comer’s lawyer responded with a lawsuit threat.
“I’ve heard unpleasant things about her personality and mental state,” Comer’s lawyer added to the article.
Before the paper published that report, the abuse allegations had swirled through the Kentucky political blogosphere.
And on April 29 of this year, the Lexington Herald-Leader reported that Heiner apologized to Comer because one of his allies met with a blogger and discussed Comer’s candidacy.
Heiner gave the paper a statement apologizing “for any role his campaign might have had in spreading the allegations.”
“It is undignified and un-Christian and not the type of campaign I am running,” Heiner said. “I personally apologize to Jamie Comer if anyone associated with my campaign is involved.”
Their back-and-forth over the domestic violence allegations was “pretty darn uncomfortable,” said Larry Cox, a Heiner backer and retired state director for McConnell.
And John McCarthy, former chairman of the Kentucky Republican Party, said the primary season has caused its fair share of cringes.
“I think everybody that’s involved with Republican politics wishes that there wasn’t the personal innuendoes or whatever out there,” he said. “But at the same time, it comes with the territory.”
Which brings us back to Bevin.
Their fight gave him an opening, and on May 8 he went up with a TV ad depicting the two candidates sitting at a child’s picnic table and pummeling each other with pie and spaghetti.
The message: “Grown-up leadership for Kentucky.”
That particular trope—a third candidate transcending two of his peers’ messy spats—is a old one in the world of political advertising.
But some charge that Bevin is slinging spaghetti with the worst of them.
Cox said Bevin’s decision to enter the race—and to do so just before the filing deadline—was “selfish, angry, antagonistic.”
“And that’s the way he’s run his campaign,” Cox added. “If I get a big surprise and Bevin is nominee, I don’t know what happens with any kind of party cohesion.”
Still, in terms of presentation, Bevin has made a dramatic shift: from the vengeance-seeking RINO-Hunter-in-Chief to mature adult nice-guy candidate.
Conventional wisdom held that McConnell clobbered Bevin so thoroughly, he’d never be a serious contender again.
Conventional wisdom was totally wrong.
The latest Bluegrass poll of 517 likely Republican primary voters conducted between May 5 and 10 showed Bevin leading the pack by the tiniest of margins. Bevin led the pack with 27 percent of the vote, followed by Comer with 26 percent, and Heiner with 25 percent. That’s all comfortably within the poll’s margin of error.
Basically, nobody knows what is going on.
And what’s going on could be historic.
That’s because whoever wins could be the first Republican Kentucky elects to be governor since 2003. The last Republican elected governor before that was in 1967.
The state is low-hanging fruit for Republicans looking to expand their control of state-level politics; at the moment, Democrats only control 18 governorships, and whoever wins the Republican nomination on Tuesday will have a decent shot at knocking that number down even further.
But this astonishingly brutal primary season won’t do the nominee any favors, and won’t make it any easier for the GOP to snag a win.
National Republicans can just hope it isn’t an augur of things to come.