FRANKFORT, Ky. -- Kentuckians are accustomed to bare-knuckled politics, but the Bluegrass State brawl between a Republican congressman and his primary challenger has turned especially ugly.
On top of the usual Republican-district volleys over whose allegiance to President Donald Trump is truest — an argument complicated by a run-in the incumbent had with the president this spring — the race has now devolved into charges of racism.
U.S. Rep. Thomas Massie and GOP challenger Todd McMurtry have battered each other in the conservative 4th District along Kentucky's northern tier. The winner of the June 23 primary will be a prohibitive favorite to keep the seat Republican in November.
The vitriol has intensified, along with the drama, between the libertarian-leaning, four-term congressman and his challenger. McMurtry previously gained notoriety as the attorney for a Kentucky high school student who sued media outlets after the teenager's encounter with a Native American activist at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., went viral.
The primary showdown will test whether Massie can survive a social media beat down from President Donald Trump.
Massie, known for going his own way in Congress, drew Trump's wrath in March for trying to stall a $2.2 trillion coronavirus aid package. Massie’s action forced lawmakers to return to the Capitol. Trump took to Twitter to denounce Massie as a “third rate Grandstander” and “a disaster for America” who should be tossed out of the GOP.
McMurtry branded Massie’s action as a betrayal to Trump. The challenger called it part of the incumbent’s pattern of opposing parts of the president’s agenda. Massie joked he was at least “second rate" as a grandstander in trying to deflect Trump's jabs.
Massie — who has a reputation for voting no on issues large and small, even in defiance of GOP leaders — now claims vindication.
“I took a lot of heat," he said recently on the Todd Starnes radio show. “I’m the guy that stood up and said, ‘You know, we’ve got to show up for work if you want to pass a $2 trillion bill.’
“I went down a little bit in the polls until people figured out what I was trying to do. I was just quoting the Constitution.”
The Republicans who bashed him in March later filed a lawsuit against House Speaker Nancy Pelosi over Democrats' decision to allow remote voting. Their suit cites “the same part of the Constitution I cited, which says you have to have a quorum to pass bills,” Massie said.
But McMurtry was put on the defensive by his own past social media posts that lampooned Trump. McMurtry had portrayed Trump as “the epitome of a weak male,” an “idiot” and “temperamentally unqualified” to be president. Critics branded him a “Trump hater."
McMurtry responded that he voted for Trump in 2016 but wasn't sure the president would govern as a conservative. McMurtry said he “changed my tune” and now staunchly supports Trump.
Scott Jennings, a Kentuckian who worked for President George W. Bush, said McMurtry's lack of campaign funds kept him from capitalizing on the Trump tweets blasting Massie. He said Massie's counterattack on McMurtry's old social media posts was “a textbook case" of how opposition research can “change the direction of a campaign."
“Massie has successfully muddied the waters on who loves or hates Trump, and McMurtry didn’t have the resources to clear it up," said Jennings, who teaches a class on modern political campaigns at the Harvard Kennedy School.
The exchanges over Trump were just a warmup to racism allegations, however.
McMurtry pounced on reports that a Confederate flag was displayed at Massie's Kentucky home when it was under construction years ago, saying Massie brought dishonor to his district.
Massie said the flag was hoisted by a construction worker but came down when his grandmother visited and lectured him.
“She pointed at it and she pointed at me and she said, ‘The next time I’m here, that flag better not be here. My grandfather was a Union soldier and that was your great-great-grandfather. Get that flag down.’ So I took it down before Mamaw left,” he said recently on Glenn Beck’s radio show.
Massie, educated at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said he was his own general contractor and could have ordered that the flag be taken down initially but “hadn’t been taught to be offended by it.”
McMurtry, meanwhile, was forced to defend some race-related social media comments.
Late last year, McMurtry tweeted of the “need to push back against demonization of white people,” adding “we should not be willing scapegoats for someone else’s agenda.” In another, he complained that “some cartel-looking dude is playing a video of some wild Mexican birthday party at full volume” in an airport. Soon after the tweets surfaced, some prominent Republicans asked that contributions to McMurtry's campaign be returned.
McMurtry says his wife was born and raised in Puerto Rico and their children were raised in a household where Spanish was spoken daily. He added: “I think that in my circumstance, my actual record and my family life and how I’ve led my life speaks for itself.”
Massie has gained a reputation as a deficit hawk and staunch gun rights supporter willing to go his own way. He sometimes signs tweets #SassyMassie.
McMurtry said Massie hasn't accomplished much in Congress. He accuses Massie of voting with Trump less than almost any other Republican.
After the back-and-forth barrages, Jennings sees Massie holding the upper hand.
“Massie was vulnerable and Trump opened a door for a challenger, but McMurtry just hasn’t walked through it," he said.