LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) -- Stepping into an issue on the political fringes, Republican Senate candidate Matt Bevin spoke at a Kentucky rally meant to build support for legal cockfighting, a bloody practice illegal nationwide.
The tea party-backed challenger to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell portrayed the event last Saturday as a states' rights rally, but his appearance among cockfight backers prompted one animal-rights group to call on Bevin to withdraw from the May 20 GOP primary.
The McConnell campaign scoffed at Bevin's description of the event.
"Only Matt Bevin would go to a cockfighting rally and claim he didn't know what they were doing there," said McConnell's campaign spokeswoman, Allison Moore.
Bevin did not respond to several requests for comment Friday.
But he told WHAS-AM in Louisville he's never been to a cockfight and doesn't condone it. He added that he supports people's right to gather to discuss issues.
"I'm not going to disparage people for exercising their First Amendment rights," Bevin said Thursday in the radio interview.
Bevin also indicated in the radio interview that the federal government should give way to states on the matter. The federal bill that sets farm policy also prohibits knowingly attending an animal fighting venture, such as a cockfight.
McConnell's vote in favor of the bill irked cockfighting enthusiasts in his state.
It's a misdemeanor in Kentucky to enter a bird in a cockfight -- in which roosters outfitted with spurs fight to the death while spectators wager on the outcome. The issue surfaces in Kentucky during occasional police raids on cockfighting rings.
Bevin, a Louisville businessman and political newcomer, is facing long odds in challenging McConnell, the longest-serving senator in Kentucky's history.
McConnell has a huge fundraising advantage. Bevin portrays McConnell as an out-of-touch Washington insider. The winner of the GOP primary will likely face Democratic front-runner Alison Lundergan Grimes in November.
Bevin never brought up cockfighting during his speech before about 700 people at the private rally at Corbin in southeastern Kentucky, but other speakers advocated for legal cockfighting after Bevin had left, said Craig Davis, president of the United Gamefowl Breeders Association. Other issues that came up included federal spending and federal involvement in personal lives, he said.
Davis said the fallout from Bevin's attendance was an attempt to "disgrace a good man."
"He was there to talk about the Constitution and what America stood for, the cultures and heritage," said Davis, who attended the event.
Animal rights activists were furious.
"Matt Bevin showed appalling judgment in associating himself with this band of lawbreakers and perpetrators of unspeakable animal cruelty," said Michael Markarian, president of The Humane Society Legislative Fund.
"It's hard to imagine anyone accidentally stumbling into a cockfighting meet-up," Markarian said.
David Devereaux, director of the American Gamefowl Defense Network, said the event was meant to build support to "change the law, not break the law." He said that legalizing a "traditional and historical form of gamefowl harvest" would generate revenue for the state and eliminate any "criminal element concerns that currently exist."
Associated Press writer Mary Clare Jalonick contributed to this report from Washington.
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