By John David Dyche

WDRB Contributor

I don't know how I will cast my ballot in the May 19 Republican governor primary. The main criterion for my vote is which of the four candidates -- Matt Bevin, James Comer, Hal Heiner and Will T. Scott -- has the best chance of beating Democrat Jack Conway in November.

The campaign was until recently relatively issue-oriented and reasonably tame by past Republican primary standards. It has now degenerated into a squalid affair of ugly accusations, finger-pointing, threats, and unanswered questions.

Unless you live in a cave (which actually sounds pretty appealing between now and Election Day) you know the story. Here is a short summary for any neo-Neanderthals who don't.

The Lexington Herald-Leader's Sam Youngman revealed that persons connected to Heiner's campaign, including his running mate KC Crosbie and her husband, had communicated with an obscure man who was pushing an unsubstantiated claim that Comer had physically assaulted a former college girlfriend, Marilyn Thomas. Heiner issued an apology.

Then The Courier-Journal's Joe Gerth wrote a piece based mainly on a letter (or e-mail) from Ms. Thomas alleging generally that in the early 1990s Comer hit her, drove her to an abortion clinic, and threatened to kill her in a call he made to her mother in the middle of some night long ago. Apparently none of this was reported to police.

Gerth's story did not actually publish the Thomas "letter," or his complete interviews with other quoted persons, but what is purported to be the missive somehow quickly made its way onto the blog of a publisher who contributes to Democrats and may have an axe to grind with Comer.

That composition will move many who read it. Ms. Thomas has not answered questions publicly.

Comer flatly denies everything, says she gave him a book in 2001, blames Heiner, and says, "We have a great deal of confidence that people involved in this have been offered money by the Heiner campaign." That is another very serious charge, but so far unsupported by any evidence.

Ms. Thomas responded via Gerth, "Ask Jamie [Comer] if he would consent to sitting in a room with me and taking a polygraph." Comer has not replied to that challenge as of this writing. It is difficult to imagine the scene if he accepts.

Comer accused The Courier-Journal of "Rolling Stone-style journalism," hired a prominent law firm, and suggested he would sue. But based on the information now available, there does not appear to be anything legally actionable in the newspaper's conduct.

During a debate on Kentucky Sports Radio, Bevin claimed Heiner had personally told him about dirt on Comer months ago. This columnist heard the Thomas story from a Heiner backer months ago. That person's stated rationale for sharing it was a belief that it was true and that it would doom the party's hopes for the governorship if Comer was nominated and the story came out during the fall campaign.

Conway clearly profits from a bitterly divided GOP, but he knows that targeting an opponent's college activities with women is a risky business. His infamous Aqua Buddha ad against Rand Paul in the 2010 U.S. Senate race backfired badly.

Comer contends he is already benefiting from a backlash in this instance, too. Perhaps, but the episode more likely hurts both him and Heiner, who has been associated with it. It probably helps Bevin and Scott.

Bevin is blasting away at Heiner. At the KSR debate Bevin said, "Hal Heiner has surrounded himself with the surliest and sorriest group of people who have smeared and assassinated other people in this race." Those are pretty strong words for people whose support he might need if nominated, but Bevin has never hesitated to burn a bridge, even if he is standing on it at the time.

By being the only one to stay completely out of the fray, and by charming voters with his folksy style, Scott can at least glimpse a very narrow potential pathway to victory that previously did not exist. He apparently lacks or will not spend the money required to truly capitalize on his opportunity, however.

Contentious Republican gubernatorial primaries in Kentucky are not new. In 1967, Louie Nunn made ugly appeals to religious bigotry in his race against Marlow Cook. The close 1991 contest between Larry Hopkins and Larry Forgy was anything but a love fest. In 2003, Steve Nunn, now imprisoned for murder, and his running mate Bob Heleringer, tried to disqualify Ernie Fletcher's ticket in court.

The elder Nunn and Fletcher won anyway, so a bitter primary need not be fatal to the conservative cause. Still, this campaign may mark a new low. It also helps explain why Kentucky Republicans have wandered in the political wilderness so long at the state level even as they dominate federal elections.

If the physical abuse charge against Comer is true, he should not be governor, if for no other reason than his denials would be false. If it is untrue, he, and Kentucky, are victims of what he calls "the worst political dirty trick in Kentucky history." We may never know for sure.

One thing is certain. Any post-primary GOP unity rally will be either really small or really interesting.

John David Dyche is a Louisville attorney and a political commentator for 
. His e-mail is 
. Follow him on Twitter @jddyche.

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