Matt Bevin has a way back in from the wilderness.
Bevin, the upstart Kentucky Republican who famously locked horns with Mitch McConnell in a no-holds-barred 2014 Senate primary, is now running for governor. At first, his hopes for victory appeared all but impossible. He jumped into the race just two hours before the candidates' final filing deadline, he was still reeling from the attacks McConnell's camp leveled against him in the primary, he had limited campaign funding at his disposal, and—most importantly—he was facing off against two state Republican heavyweights in the GOP primary: Louisville Metro Councilman Hal Heiner, the front-runner, and State Agriculture Commissioner James Comer, who has been laying the groundwork for a gubernatorial run for years.
But now, days before the May 19 primary, a dramatic turn of events—largely surrounding dueling allegations of domestic violence and accessory to slander between Bevin's two primary rivals—has left the tea-party-aligned Bevin with a chance at victory.
Long-simmering rumors about Comer exploded last month, after conservative blogger Michael Adams aggressively pushed out a story that Comer had physically abused a former girlfriend in college. The woman in question also recently spoke out publicly for the first time, accusing Comer of the abuse. Comer has denied the allegations, and he claims the rumors are being spread by Heiner, whose campaign was in contact with Adams in the months before the domestic-abuse story became public. (The Louisville Courier-Journal has a broader look at the Comer allegations.)
As Comer and Heiner battle, Bevin is standing above the fray. Bevin's campaign released a TV ad Friday that depicts Comer and Heiner "acting like children" in a food fight. A narrator says Bevin's the only one who brings "grown-up leadership" to the race.
None of this is to say Bevin is the race's new front-runner, but the Heiner-Comer clash has improved his chances. "We're very confident about where we are," said Bevin campaign manager Ben Hartman.
Outside analysts see a chance for Bevin as well. "I don't know how much Comer's attacks have hurt Heiner, but if it is effective, it could help Bevin, and Bevin could win," said Danny Briscoe, a longtime Kentucky Democratic strategist.
All the campaigns are closely watching this week for the results of an independent "Bluegrass" poll sponsored by the Courier-Journal and local TV stations that will gauge how the events of the past month have affected the campaigns' respective fortunes.
Before the Comer scandal broke open, most operatives pegged Heiner as the narrow front-runner, followed closely by Bevin, with Comer close behind in third place. A fourth candidate, former Kentucky Supreme Court Justice Will Scott, is trailing the others by a wide margin in all public and private polling.
Still, as Bevin attempts to claw his way back, he's dogged by his missteps in last year's Senate race. He had to apologize for attending a pro-cockfighting rally yet again in a radio debate last week, and he's raised significantly less money than his opponents. He's mostly self-funded his bid this year, and enters the final days with comparatively less to spend.
The idea of a Bevin primary win is uncomfortable for some Kentucky Republicans, particularly McConnell allies. McConnell's former campaign manager, Josh Holmes, recently took shots at Bevin, essentially painting him as a fraud whose actions are driven by ego: "It's abundantly clear that his guiding light is to embrace whatever gets himself a little further down the road. If somehow Matt Bevin got into the governor's mansion his only agenda would be the commissioning of his portrait," Holmes told the Courier-Journal.
Other former McConnell allies have been more willing to bury the hatchet. Scott Jennings, who ran McConnell's super PAC last year, wrote in a recent column: "Bevin has improved this time around through a more focused message and polished public presence." If Bevin wins, Jennings said, it will be because Bevin's "well-produced" advertising efforts "made him appear to be a mainstream conservative, curing a bruise from his previous race."
McConnell joined with other Kentucky Republicans in April to call for unity after the primary, no matter the winner.
Campaign watchers are expecting low turnout in the primary, and Hartman says he expects next week's winner will grab somewhere in the mid-30 percent range of all votes. In past Republican gubernatorial primaries, that would have equated to just tens of thousands of votes.
Democrats, meanwhile, are enjoying the show, saying they think the primary battle has already damaged whichever GOP candidate emerges to take on their nominee. Democrat Jack Conway, the current attorney general, is expected to advance to the general election after a relatively smooth ride to the primary.
Says Kentucky Democratic Party spokesman David Bergstein: The "Republican primary slugfest has exposed the severe flaws in each of the GOP candidates, and whoever manages to emerge will enter the general election deeply wounded."
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