It is safe to call the Kentucky primary race between Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell and challenger Matt Bevin a nasty contest.
The latest offensive from McConnell says his Tea Party-backed opponent isn't just misleading the public about his past, but argues Bevin may have committed a criminal act in the process that could be grounds for imprisonment.
From the outset McConnell's ruthless campaign told voters Bevin, a Louisville businessman and investor, was an "East Coast con man" whom they couldn't trust.
Even as TV attack ads against Bevin's business record were dubbed mostly false by fact-checkers, the pummeling has escalated and expanded.
As first reported by Buzzfeed last week, Bevin's Connecticut-based bell-making company (Bevin Brothers Manufacturing Co.) sought a $100,000 state grant after it burned down from a fire four years ago.
The online news site found Bevin's company applied for the grant saying it didn't owe any local, state or federal back taxes while failing to disclose a $74,000 IRS lien.
Another Connecticut document obtained by WFPL is dated June 16, 2012. It shows Bevin signed some of the paperwork personally, which stated there were "no federal tax claims or liens" against his company.
McConnell's campaign didn't leave this to just their political operatives, who eagerly attacked Bevin's trustworthiness. Team Mitch also found a Connecticut lawyer who said Bevin could face a $2,000 fine or a year in jail.
"Mr. Bevin apparently admitted that his company paid the tax lien off on September 11, 2012 and the lien was released on Nov. 7, 2012. So, at the time Mr. Bevin signed the certificate under oath, a tax lien in fact was filed against his company contrary to the representations made in the certificate," attorney Peter J. Martin, a Connecticut attorney, said during a McConnell campaign conference call. "Now, I am not a prosecutor, I am not a judge and I am not a jury, but if I was Mr. Bevin’s attorney I would be very concerned."
It was less than a month ago when a senior McConnell campaign adviser told WFPL they were going to ignore the primary race, and suggested the media should too.
McConnell campaign aides said Bevin was a candidate stuck at 20 percent who would dwell in the basement of GOP circles and be nothing more than a nuisance. Now they are going for a major killing blow by suggesting the tax liens could land Bevin behind bars.
"This latest revelation is disqualifying. It goes beyond character problems and into criminal concerns," says one McConnell campaign aide.
The so-called "annihilation" strategy comes at a ripe moment in the Republican primary. Bevin's national exposure is growing with an endorsement from the Senate Conservatives Fund along with appearances on the shows of conservative commentators such as Glenn Beck and Lou Dobbs.
The Kentucky GOP primary is also on the radar of top conservative activists including former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. Anemic fundraising numbers means Bevin hasn't been up with a TV ad message in weeks to take advantage of the brewing GOP civil war.
Bevin has been employing a guerilla warfare of going from county-to-county at smaller campaigns stops across the state. And Bevin supporters outside of Kentucky tell WFPL they are planning to build a "robust ground game" with Tea Party activists with campaign centers, especially in Northern and Eastern Kentucky.
It is unclear if McConnell's tactic of skinning Bevin's business past is penetrating the electorate or if Bevin is concerned about any serious criminal charges beyond the political optics.
Asked by The New York Times if the series of attacks on his record have hurt, Bevin said:
"They have not because they’re not true. When you have a 37 percent approval rating, the only way you have to get re-elected is to make the people running against you less popular than yourself. So I think we’ve only begun to see the tip of the iceberg. (McConnell) makes these claims up, and then he runs ads about them, and I think he’ll continue to do that."
However voters take this latest spat, this is a perfect time for McConnell to pounce and serious test for how Bevin and his campaign respond.