With most of the eyeballs in the Bluegrass State glued to their televisions Friday night for the match-up between the Kentucky Wildcats and the Louisville Cardinals, Mitch McConnell's allies and enemies are looking to leave voters with a different kind of March Madness memory.
Matt Bevin, the Louisville businessman struggling to gain traction in his bid to oust McConnell in the May 20 Republican primary, is determined to make McConnell's Duke debacle earlier this week something that sticks with the Senate minority leader well beyond the NCAA basketball tournament.
Bevin is running a basketball-themed spot in Louisville and Lexington poking fun at the embarrassment that befell the McConnell campaign when it released a web video that included brief footage of a team in blue and white celebrating a national championship. The problem, as reported across the nation, was that those players were Duke University Blue Devils, a reviled team in the commonwealth.
After compounding the misstep by replacing the footage with an image of Kentucky standout Julius Randle — that move prompted a cease-and-decist letter from the University of Kentucky — the McConnell campaign pulled the ad.
"March Madness in Kentucky. Commitment. Courage. You gotta love it," Bevin says before turning to a cutout of McConnell wearing a Duke jersey. "Even if your team is already out of the tournament."
The cutout is wearing Number 32, which Christian Laettner wore for Duke when he spat on the hopes and dreams of Kentucky fans with his last second shot against the Wildcats in the 1992 NCAA tournament.
The Bevin campaign's response is similar to that of likely Democratic nominee Alison Lundergan Grimes, both of whom argue that the video fiasco proves McConnell is "out of touch."
In response, the McConnell camp pointed to troubles that have allowed the campaign to question Bevin's credibility, like the inaccurate suggestion by Bevin on a social media page that he graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology or his varied explanations for signing a letter in 2008 that praised the Troubled Assets Relief Program, more commonly known as a bank bailout.
"Given Bailout Bevin's undying commitment to a fictional account of himself and Sen. McConnell, we actually expected this ad to be about the time he won a national championship back in the 80s as a point guard for the MIT Engineers," Allison Moore, McConnell's spokeswoman, said. "Matt Bailout Bevin is not who he says he is, and he's certainly not a Kentucky conservative."
Meanwhile, two groups supportive of McConnell are planning to run ads during the game in the Lexington, Louisville, Bowling Green and Paducah markets.
The Kentucky Opportunity Coalition, a 501(c)4 nonprofit organization, is running an issues ad that boasts of McConnell's efforts to help troops and veterans. The ad is part of a $1.8 million ad campaign the Herald-Leader first reported last week.
Kentuckians for Strong Leadership, a pro-McConnell super PAC, is running an ad attacking Grimes' credibility and painting her as an ally of President Barack Obama.
The ad, "Burned," features Obama saying "if you like your private insurance plan, you can keep your plan," before shifting to clips of a burning house that were used in a web ad by Grimes last October called "Fire."
Grimes's ad featured a burning house and cast blame on McConnell for last fall's 16-day federal government shutdown. It mocked the senator's efforts to win credit for helping to end the Washington stand-off.
"Mitch McConnell can't light the house on fire, then claim credit for putting it out, especially while it's still burning," the Grimes' video said.
The "Fire" ad was widely praised by pundits and Grimes allies, but fact-checkers said it was either inaccurate or misleading. The Washington Post's fact-checking column, called The Fact Checker, gave it three out of four "Pinnochios."
The latest pro-McConnell ad points to The Fact Checker's ruling, using its arguments to poke holes in Grimes's credibility.
"When liberals don't tell the truth, Kentucky gets burned," the ad says.
Sam Youngman: (502) 875-3793. Twitter: @samyoungman. Blog: bluegrasspolitics.bloginky.com