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How cockfighting became an issue in the Kentucky Senate race. Yes, really.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's campaign calls it one "of the most disqualifying moments in Kentucky political history." Businessman Matt Bevin's team shrugs it off as "just a rehash of an old story." What are they talking about? Cockfighting.

Spectators lean in at a cockfight in Thailand's Chiang Rai province, risking contact with blood that could harbor the bird flu virus. Photo Credit: Alan Sipress -- The Washington Post
Spectators lean in at a cockfight in Thailand's Chiang Rai province.
(Photo Credit: Alan Sipress -- The Washington Post)

Yes, cockfighting. It's the dominant issue at the moment in the Republican primary for U.S. Senate in Kentucky. Bevin's remarks a recent rally where attendees championed the legalization of the blood sport -- illegal in Kentucky -- in which roosters fight one another and spectators bet on the outcome have become the latest blow to his floundering campaign to unseat the Senate's top Republican.

It all started with the revelation early this month that Bevin spoke at a pro-cockfighting rally in Corbin, a town in southeastern Kentucky, on March 29. Bevin later said he didn't understand that he was at an event to gin up support to legalize the activity.

"I was the first person to speak and then I left," Bevin told the Corbin News Journal. "They knew I was here. They asked if I would be interested in speaking. I’m a politician running statewide, any chance I get to speak to a few hundred people I’m going to take it." His now-former spokeswoman told the Louisville Courier-Journal, "It was not a cockfighting rally, it was a states' rights rally."

The story lingered in the local media for a bit, then faded. But it resurfaced in a Thursday WAVE TV report which detailed Bevin's remarks at the March event, including a response to a direct question about cockfighting. The report also included evidence that there was little ambiguity about the purpose of the gathering.

American Gamefowl Defense Director Dave Devereaux spoke before Bevin, reported WAVE's John Boel, who attended the rally undercover. Devereaux explained the gathering was for "the sole purpose of legalizing gamecock fighting at the state level." After Bevin spoke, Devreaux asked him if he would "support the effort to legalize gamecock fighting in the state of Kentucky."

Bevin responded, "I support the people of Kentucky exercising their right, because it is our right to decide what it is that we want to do, and not the federal government's. Criminalizing behavior, if it's part of the heritage of this state, is in my opinion a bad idea. A bad idea. I will not support it," according to Boel's report.

McConnell's campaign accused Bevin of lying about what he knew of the event.

"Twenty years from now, we will all remember the time when the East Coast con-man thought so little of Kentuckians that he pathologically lied to us about absolutely everything until an undercover camera caught him red-handed at a cockfighting rally," said McConnell spokeswoman Allison Moore.

Bevin told WAVE he was not paying attention when Devereaux explained the event was about cockfighting. On Friday, he apologized in a statement.

"I am genuinely sorry that my attendance at an event which, other than my comments, appears to have primarily involved a discussion of cockfighting, has created concern on the part of many Kentucky voters," Bevin said. "I understand that concern." He added that he does not and has never supported cockfighting but does support "states' rights. Regardless of any personal views on this issue, animal rights are not an enumerated power granted to the federal government under the Constitution. Such decisions should be left to each state to decide."

With less than a month to go until the May 20 primary, Bevin is a sizable underdog against McConnell. He has veered off-message time and again. He once suggested legalizing gay marriage could lead to parents being able to marry their children. His prior support for the TARP program -- which these days he likes to slam -- has come under scrutiny. He's losing staffers. Polls show him trailing McConnell by a wide margin.

On its own, the cockfighting story isn't enough to sink Bevin's campaign. But viewed in the context of the string of other distractions he's had to deal with, it reinforces the reality that his campaign is in serious need of repairs down the stretch.

Updated at 2:21 p.m. with Bevin's apology

Sean Sullivan has covered national politics for The Washington Post since 2012.

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