The Republican primary for governor turned toxic Monday night as a woman publicly accused James Comer of physical abuse in 1991 and Comer's running mate assailed Hal Heiner's campaign for its contact with a blogger who had been posting about the alleged assault for months.
Comer on Monday night denied the allegation of abuse in an interview with the Herald-Leader, saying he would hold a press conference on Tuesday "to prove this is the worst political dirty trick in Kentucky history."
Just minutes into a debate among the GOP candidates for lieutenant governor, state Sen. Chris McDaniel blasted KC Crosbie, who is running with Heiner, for her association with Lexington blogger Michael Adams.
Adams has for the last several months run an online campaign accusing Comer of assaulting Marilyn Thomas, of New York City.
Thomas had remained silent about the allegations until Monday night, when the Courier-Journal posted a story based on a letter the newspaper said it received from her.
In the letter, Thomas said Comer was mentally and physically abusive to her when they dated while students at Western Kentucky University, the newspaper reported.
The letter does not offer specific details of the alleged physical abuse, other than to say Comer struck her, according to the newspaper.
The letter also said Comer accompanied Thomas to a Louisville abortion clinic in 1991, according to The Courier-Journal.
The newspaper reported that Comer's lawyer, Dick Plymale, of Lexington, said Comer "profusely denies" the allegations in the letter, including that he abused Thomas or accompanied her to an abortion clinic. He promised a "devastating lawsuit" against the newspaper if it published the story, the Courier-Journal reported.
In his opening remarks in the debate, aired on KET's Kentucky Tonight with host Bill Goodman as the moderator, McDaniel alleged that Adams had threatened his two daughters in an email, leading the campaign to contact the commonwealth attorney's office.
"I've just been horribly disappointed on a very personal level because the same blogger who did that, several months ago, put out personal threats against my 6- and 10-year-old daughters that caused us to have to contact the commonwealth attorney, who's convened a grand jury and has an ongoing investigation," McDaniel said.
He added: "And that's not the kind of politics that Kentucky deserves, and frankly, KC, I've been appalled with what I have seen over the past several weeks related to this."
In response, Crosbie, whose husband, Scott Crosbie, exchanged emails and met with Adams at a Lexington O'Charley's, said that "last week Hal Heiner responded on behalf of our campaign.
"And we've been out running a positive campaign, talking to Kentuckians all across the commonwealth about creating jobs, improving education and bringing accountablity to our budgeting," Crosbie said.
"And so we've already talked about this issue."
Heiner issued a statement to the Herald-Leader last week that called Adams' effort to discredit Comer "the worst type of politics."
"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."
That apology did not appear to be enough for McDaniel, who said Monday night that "a conditional response when you have somebody running a smear campaign for nine months, bloggers threatening people's children, is just unacceptable.
"And frankly Kentuckians deserve better," McDaniel said.
Despite that skirmish in the opening moments, the majority of the hour-long debate centered around the issues Republicans have made the focal points of the primary campaign.
McDaniel, Crosbie and Jenean Hampton, who is running with former U.S. Senate candidate Matt Bevin, all agreed that passing "right-to-work" legislation would be their first priority if they were elected.
Former Menifee County Sheriff Rodney Coffey, who is running with recently retired state Supreme Court Justice Will T. Scott, said that preserving coal jobs should be the first priority of the next governor.
There was general agreement among the running mates on the other issues of the day as they parroted the campaign talking points of the candidates at the top of the slate.
When Goodman asked if the candidates would all agree to support the eventual nominee of the May 19 primary, all agreed except McDaniel, who qualified his support by saying he would support the ticket "so long as they've not done anything illegal."
The four Republican gubernatorial candidates are scheduled to debate on KET next Monday.