Washington (CNN)In Kentucky politics, there's virtually nothing worse than comparing your opponent to the Duke power forward whose last-minute shot denied the Wildcats a spot in the 1992 NCAA Final Four.
Koch money fuels personal politics in Kentucky
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But that's how bad things have gotten in the Bluegrass State, where Republicans are sparring for the party's nomination for governor.
"You're the Christian Laettner of Kentucky politics," Agriculture Commissioner James Comer told Hal Heiner in a highly anticipated sports-radio debate this week.
A divisive and expensive battle for the GOP nod is coming to a head this month as the powerful Koch brothers' political network digs in its heels, putting money behind Heiner and leaving Comer staring down an avalanche of negative advertising. The jousting in Kentucky reflects the impact of unfettered money in politics and offers a preview of what the presidential season could look like nationwide next year.
Outside super PACs and political nonprofits are the new normal heading into 2016, but they rule especially large in a state like Kentucky where donors can only give $1,000 directly to a campaign. The three major candidates have each been either the victim or perpetrator of outside spending attacks, which have attempted to humiliate one tongue-tied hopeful, claimed that another lied about his resume, and based on how the race is devolving, could get even messier.
For Charles and David Koch, megadonors who plan to spend $889 million in the 2016 cycle, the Kentucky race signals the types of shots they'll take to eek out a win in a tight race. It is the nastiest campaign of 2015 -- an off-year race that could foreshadow spending wars to come in the on-year.
This new campaign finance landscape is fueling and amplifying attacks that look to dominate the final two weeks before the election. Comer, the race's early favorite and the Koch brothers' target, is confronting assertions that he assaulted a girlfriend a generation ago, charges that he vigorously denied Tuesday as politically motivated.
"The notion that I could commit such a horrific offense is beyond any semblance of reason," said Comer at a press conference, responding to a Monday evening article in the state's Courier-Journal newspaper, which he now plans to sue. "These allegations are false. We're moving forward."
But he'll have to move quickly. Those allegations haven't made their way into an advertisement. Yet.
Republicans on May 19 will choose between Comer, Heiner, the Koch-favorite and a former Louisville metro councilman, former state Supreme Court Justice Will T. Scott and Matt Bevin, a touted insurgent who lost to Sen. Mitch McConnell in an effort by the tea party to oust the Senate Republican leader in 2014. Polling shows Comer, Heiner and Bevin tightly packed.
The campaigns themselves have stayed mostly positive, while the outside groups throw the less endearing punches.
McConnell famously crowed 15 years ago that "no one in the history of American politics has ever won or lost a campaign on the subject of campaign finance reform.''
But in his own backyard, the candidates are testing that adage as they hit the competition for being the darling of outside groups, claiming that their vehicle for unlimited spending is less tainted than their opponents'.
"I don't have any problem disclosing where our contributions came from and what we're spending them on," said Republican strategist Kathryn Breiwa, who heads the pro-Comer super PAC, Kentuckians for Growth, Opportunity and Prosperity. "Any time you have an organization where you don't have to report donors and you're attacking candidates' records, that raises a red flag."
Breiwa's super PAC has to disclose its contributors, some of whom are aligned with the constellation of donors organized by GOP power broker Karl Rove that flushed McConnell with paid media during his primary last year. Rove even chipped in himself to support Comer's campaign, though only the maximum $1,000 his committee could accept.
Recent Supreme Court decisions have also cleared the way for social welfare groups that, unlike super PACs, can shield their financial backers. That's where the Koch brothers, who control their own political operation that has competed with Rove's for top-level donors and operatives, have channeled their energies in Kentucky.
Citizens for a a Sound Government, a nonprofit organization run by a Koch-allied operative named Alan Philp, has savaged Comer and Bevin with negative ads. The group hits Bevin in a spot for failing to pay taxes on his vacation home, a line of attack pursued by Rove-aligned operatives on McConnell's behalf last year.
One-third of a separate 30-second ad features Comer grimacing as he attempts to explain why he voted to raise his own pension. Ten seconds of painful television later, he admits: "That was clearly a bad vote."
"We stay focused on the issues," explained Philp, who said his organization has spent $750,000. "We've been looking at the various public officials and candidates' records to educate voters."
In Kentucky, donations to the campaigns are only a fraction of the total contributions funding overwhelming airwave offensives. Both Bevin and Heiner have largely self-funded their campaigns.
Now, the Bluegrass Action Fund, a new pro-Heiner super PAC run by his former campaign manager, is planning a $400,000 media campaign. In an advertisement that began Tuesday evening, the group frames Bevin as "dishonest" for misrepresenting himself on the social media site LinkedIn and claims that he's "not a Kentucky conservative."
Some GOP heavyweights in the state expressed regret that the fire and counterfire could hurt the Republican brand. Democrats have managed to survive -- and sometimes even thrive -- in ruby-red Kentucky, controlling both the governor's office and the state House. The Republican nominee will face a Democrat who is already a statewide official, Attorney General Jack Conway.
"It doesn't represent our party very well," said Republican donor Terry Stephens, who said he has given $300,000 to the pro-Comer super PAC. "Unfortunately, here in Kentucky, it's certainly not uncommon that now, as we get into the homestretch of the race, it's going to take a turn for the negative."
That it has.
Last week, Heiner had to apologize to Comer for attempting to spread the unsubstantiated claims Comer had physically assaulted a woman he dated in college -- a month after Heiner claimed his campaign had nothing to do with the rumors.
Then on Tuesday morning, Kentucky voters awoke to a Courier-Journal front page with the headline: "Comer accused of abuse in college." The woman who dated Comer at Western Kentucky University had come forward, and has challenged Comer to take a polygraph test.
With Comer against the ropes, some observers believe it could be Bevin who breaks through in the final two weeks. Comer seemed to recognize Tuesday that his fortunes could be slipping away.
"I've been hit pretty hard over the last three weeks," he said, recalling in detail the "pretty rough" treatment he'd received on the air and on the ground. "Today is a defining moment in the campaign."