Politics & Government

Money poured in to help candidate beat Kim Davis. He lost. Then things got complicated.

The money came flooding in from throughout the country: Boston, Beverly Hills, Palm Springs, San Francisco, Philadelphia. It came from movie stars like Susan Sarandon and Amy Schumer. David Ermold collected a whopping $218,135.55 during his primary campaign for Rowan County Clerk and bought t-shirts, office supplies, bumper stickers and political consulting. He paid his canvassers.

Then he lost.

On election night, he holed up in his office and put a sign on his door that said he wouldn’t talk to anyone unless they were Ellen DeGeneres, Anderson Cooper or selling Girl Scout cookies. The dream deflated. After all the work, after all the money, he had ended up with just 25 percent of the vote while Elwood Caudill Jr., the guy who lost to Davis in the Democratic primary in 2014, glided to victory with 54 percent.

Among the remnants of Ermold’s campaign is $32,000 in political donations, money that came along with the hope that he’d be the one to defeat the woman who served as the face of the pushback against same-sex marriage.

As of July, Ermold had not yet done anything with the money, almost double what Davis spent in the 2014 election, according to the Kentucky Registry of Election Finance.

When Davis made the decision not to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, she launched herself onto a national stage and made getting her out of office a national goal for some LGBT advocates. Now, as Ermold has been adamant that he won’t support Caudill in the general election, some are saying his leftover campaign funds should be put toward defeating Davis.

“In my opinion, all of that money collected was for beating Kim Davis,” said David O’Neill, the Fayette County PVA.

According to Kentucky law, Ermold has five options for what he could do with the leftover money. He could turn it back over to the state, he could donate it to a charitable organization, he could return it to his donors, he could hold onto it for a future campaign for Rowan County Clerk or he could donate it to the Democratic Party.

Some are disappointed he hasn’t chosen to give the money to the Rowan County Democratic Party so it can help oust Davis.

“Our goal is to see this embarrassment that is Kim Davis out of office,” said Josh Mers, the former director of Lexington Fairness who supported Ermold through the primary. “We need to be doing what we can to not actively divide the people who wanted her to do her job.”

Normally, a few weeks after the election the candidate who lost the primary will throw his support behind the winner. They’ll announce their endorsement, clap each other on the back and say they’re moving onto the general election as a unified front. Normally.

But since the primary, Ermold has called Caudill a homophobe and has posted screenshots of people saying Caudill used a derogatory term for gay people on Facebook. Ermold has been critical of the Rowan County Democratic Party and their support of LGBT rights, noting Davis was a Democrat until 2015.

Despite Ermold’s critiques, Kentucky Fairness Campaign, the state’s largest LGBT political advocacy group, endorsed Caudill last week.

“Mr. Caudill has repeatedly expressed his commitment to treat all Rowan County residents equally in the clerk’s office, which makes him a refreshing alternative to Kim Davis, whose discriminatory actions made Kentucky a laughing stock around the world,” said Eric Graninger, the chairman of the group’s committee for fairness and individual rights.

Ermold declined to talk to the Herald-Leader for this story, citing “unflattering” coverage from the Herald-Leader in the past, but said on Facebook that he found the endorsement “personally offensive.” Davis also declined to comment for this story.

Caudill, who is currently the chief deputy property valuation administrator in Rowan County, adamantly denies Ermold’s allegations. He says he would have issued the marriage licenses in 2015 and says he will treat everyone equally and with respect should he win. He even noted that he planned to attend a “pop-up pride” event in Morehead.

But the accusations have caused headaches for his campaign. When he goes door to door, he carries around 17 messages from a man who apologized for saying on Facebook that Caudill had called him a derogatory term.

“It’s slowing me down,” Caudill said. “Because I have to address it and make it clear to the public.”

Caudill lost by only 23 votes in the 2014 primary to Davis, before she switched from a Democrat to a Republican. This time around, he’s running a campaign focused on the future in a community that is disinclined to relive its past. His platform is based on lowering costs and updating the computer system in the clerk’s office to bring the county government “into the 21st century.”

In Lexington, O’Neill is concerned that Ermold is letting personal grievances get in the way of ensuring Davis’ defeat.

“I think Ermold has caused just enough skepticism that they don’t know what to do and that’s a shame,” O’Neill said.

Mary Hargis, who lives in Rowan County, said she doesn’t think Ermold’s claims will prevent Caudill from beating Davis. Hargis was among the people who protested when Davis refused to issue the marriage licenses and said she still sees getting Davis out of office as her primary goal.

“I’ve always thought that,” Hargis said. “I’d be very hypocritical if I thought otherwise.”

Hargis said she sees this as a letdown for Ermold more than a grudge against Caudill. Every time Ermold drives home he has to go past a large Kim Davis sign that his neighbors put on their barn.

“I think David was so upset with the community not giving him more support,” Hargis said.

Ashley Adkins, a spokeswoman for the Rowan County Democratic Party, kept the rift between Ermold and Caudill at an arms distance. Instead, she focused on the party’s support of Caudill and said the party was “proud” to have him as a candidate in November.

“We feel like we’re in a good place to win the clerk’s office back in 2018,” Adkins said.

It hasn’t been as easy for Caudill to ignore the controversy. On Thursday, he showed a reporter emails where someone had entered him into an NFL fantasy football league under the name “I am a bigot.” He said that same night someone had also used his email to sign up for Retail Me Not and a pornography site.

Just as he finished talking, Caudill looked down at his phone and saw the email endorsing him from the Kentucky Fairness Coalition.

“Wonderful,” he breathed before letting out a long sigh of relief.

“For one of the first times, I think, somebody has finally seen through the attack.”