Republican U.S. Senate candidate Matt Bevin’s decision to speak Saturday at a Corbin rally organized by a pro-cockfighting group raises questions about his campaign’s judgment as the May 20 primary nears, a Western Kentucky University political science professor and chairman of the Warren County GOP said Wednesday.
The Corbin News Journal reported Wednesday that Bevin spoke to a crowd of about 700 at The Arena in Corbin during an event closed to the media and sponsored by the American Gamefowl Defense Network to promote the legalization of cockfighting in Kentucky. Bevin’s itinerary, emailed to the press Friday, listed the Corbin event as a rally for states’ rights.
Bevin, reached by The Corbin News Journal at a Lincoln Day dinner that evening, told the newspaper he was unaware of the event’s link to cockfighting.
“They knew I was here,” Bevin said, according to the newspaper. “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.”
Bevin’s spokeswoman, Rachel Semmel, did not return messages from The State Journal. She told The Louisville Courier-Journal, “It was not a cockfighting rally, it was a states’ rights rally.”
But a statement posted to the American Gamefowl Defense Network’s Facebook page by David Devereaux, the group’s director, appears to contradict that message.
The event was held “for the purpose of unifying and uniting gamefowl enthusiasts around the principle of using the democratic process to change the law, not break the law,” Devereaux said in the statement.
Devereaux, of Tacoma, Wash., did not return messages from The State Journal seeking comment.
“The American Gamefowl Defense Network chooses to not participate in any interviews that concern any questions related to political races, political candidates, or issues not directly related to gamefowl,” he said in the statement, which adds that such matters are “nonpartisan.”
His group seeks the legalization of cockfighting in Kentucky and other states, which would negate a new federal law within the 2014 Farm Bill against attending such events.
The Animal Fighting Spectator Prohibition Act exempts states that allow cockfighting as long as no out-of-state roosters are brought for events. Cockfighting is illegal in every state and a Class A misdemeanor in Kentucky.
Scott Lasley, an associate professor of political science at WKU and chairman of the Republican Party of Warren County, said Bevin’s appearance at the rally to legalize cockfighting in Kentucky could do more harm than good for his bid to unseat Republican U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
Bevin likely found a receptive audience at the event, but he risked alienating moderate GOP voters, Lasley said, describing cockfighting as a “such a trivial issue” with far more prominent problems facing the country.
“I think it hurts in the broader audience because he’s trying to build from a pretty narrow base,” Lasley said. “… I can’t imagine that this helps beyond a relatively very narrow audience and probably works against him in the grander scheme.”
Pleading ignorance of the rally’s intent “doesn’t say much about the campaign,” he said.
“They can sit there and say, ‘We never talked cockfighting, we didn’t know there was cockfighting,’” Lasley said. “Sometimes in politics there’s guilt by association.
“Either they were totally unvetted and unprepared for it, which says a lot about the campaign and its ability to compete at this level, or, I don’t think Matt Bevin at the end of the day is probably in favor of cockfighting, but clearly I think that they think that message is going to be receptive. Otherwise you don’t go there.”
Allison Moore, McConnell’s campaign spokeswoman, was more direct.
“Only Matt Bevin would go to a cockfighting rally and claim he didn’t know what they were doing there,” Moore said in a statement.
But Craig Davis, chief executive officer of Americans Watching Washington and president of the Kentucky Gamefowl Breeders’ Association, said Bevin’s speech at the rally would resonate with rural Kentucky voters. Americans Watching Washington is the sponsor of the American Gamefowl Defense Network, according to the latter group’s Facebook page.
Bevin spoke for about half an hour at the beginning of the rally and then left for another event, Davis said, noting the candidate made no mention of cockfighting.
“They’re tired; they’re fed up,” Davis said of rural Kentucky voters as roosters crowed in the background on his Leitchfield farm. “Every time they turn around, the federal government’s stepping on their rights.”
He added later: “It’s not just about the Farm Bill, but this Farm Bill is one of the things that actually brought it to the attention of not most, but some of the Kentucky constituents, and we’re just fed up with the federal government taking our rights away from us.”
The Kentucky Gamefowl Breeders’ Association rented The Arena in Corbin for the rally, according to the Courier-Journal report, and Davis appeared with Bevin during a March 21 campaign event in Radcliff on the United Kentucky Tea Party’s Unbridled Liberty Tour.
Davis himself was running for state representative as a Republican in the 18th District, but he discovered last week he was a registered Democrat, according to a report by cn|2 Pure Politics. He told The State Journal he has since dropped out of the race.
Bevin’s talking points at the rally centered on the U.S. Constitution, tradition, heritage and culture, said Davis, who attended Saturday’s rally and has endorsed Bevin’s candidacy. He bristles at the “nasty” term cockfighting, preferring “rooster fighting” instead.
“We can’t take and be so judgmental on a person standing up for our constitutional rights and the culture and heritage for which the United States was based on or built off of,” he said.