LOUISVILLE, KY (WAVE) - The personal, messy accusations in the Republican primary for Kentucky governor have likely opened the door for Louisville businessman Matt Bevin, a fact that some in the GOP fear.
Agriculture Commissioner James Comer faces accusations that he abused his college girlfriend in the early 1990s. The allegations bubbled under the surface for months before the accuser, Marilyn Thomas, went public earlier this week.
Comer rival Hal Heiner got tangled up in the controversy when it was revealed his running mate and her husband had contacted a blogger who had been pushing the abuse allegations for months.
Like a race car driver avoiding a bad wreck, Louisville businessman Matt Bevin -- who was the joke of the Republican party only last year -- has escaped the mess. Bevin now has a legitimate shot to win the GOP nomination, leading one Republican to advocate for the use of opposition research to defeat him.
Thomas, in a four-page letter to the Louisville Courier-Journal, said Comer hit her and took her to an abortion clinic. Comer was forced to hold a news conference earlier this week and has denied all of the allegations.
But on a Facebook page that appears to belong to Thomas, she didn't back down from her accusations.
"If I was going to make up a story, I would've used far less humiliating details," Thomas wrote on the social media page.
Comer accused Heiner's campaign of pushing the story and paying people to oppose him. The former Metro councilman repeatedly denied the first charge during a debate Wednesday, and Heiner spokesman Doug Alexander refuted the second claim Thursday.
Comer struck back, calling Heiner "the Christian Laettner of Kentucky politics." When a WAVE 3 News reporter tweeted that, Laettner replied that he wondered if it meant Heiner would win, along with the hashtag "teasing."
The personal fight between Comer and Heiner has led many to note Bevin's rising status, which was unthinkable after he lost the Republican U.S. Senate primary last year to Sen. Mitch McConnell.
Bevin suffered a series of missteps during the campaign, including when WAVE 3 News recorded him at a pro-cockfighting rally. He later angered Republicans when he refused to endorse McConnell, even walking away from questions about whether he would vote for the senator against Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes.
"I went time and time again to stand and applaud for him, to encourage people to vote for him over Grimes," Bevin said during a Kentucky Sports Radio debate Wednesday. Yet McConnell's supporters said they never saw Bevin do that.
"If any Republican wants to vote for Matt Bevin, they should get used to two words: 'Governor Conway,'" said Bill Stone, the former chairman of the Jefferson County Republican Party, referencing likely Democratic nominee Jack Conway.
Josh Holmes, McConnell's former adviser, said Thursday that there was still plenty of opposition research against Bevin, but that he wouldn't get involved in the Kentucky GOP primary.
Asked if someone should bring out opposition research against Bevin, Stone said, "Absolutely. I truly believe that. Look, we can't fool around with the future of Kentucky anymore."
The third-party group Bluegrass Action Fund has released a new TV advertisement that attacks Bevin. One of the group's largest donors is Heiner's business partner, Stan Franczek,
Members of both parties said Conway was benefiting from the Republican infighting.
"Certainly this doesn't hurt Jack," said Tim Mulloy, a Democratic strategist in Louisville. "This (Republican primary) is very personal, and that won't be forgotten."
Mulloy said if Bevin or Heiner win the GOP nomination instead of Comer, it eliminates one of Conway's weaknesses -- that he's from Louisville, which hasn't produced many governors. Both Bevin and Heiner live in Jefferson County.
"I think that helps Jack," Mulloy said. "It takes the rural-urban argument off the table."