U.S. Senate candidate Matt Bevin took part in a rally Saturday planned to support the legalization of cockfighting in Kentucky.
Bevin's campaign, however, described the event at the Corbin Arena in Corbin, Ky., as a "states' rights rally," and said that Bevin, who is challenging U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell in the Republican primary in May, didn't know that it had any ties to cockfighting.
"It was not a cockfighting rally, it was a states' rights rally," said Rachel Semmel, a Bevin spokeswoman.
But the event's organizer told the Corbin News Journal that the sole purpose of the rally was to gain support for legislation to legalize cockfighting in Kentucky. The newspaper reported that about 700 people attended.
"The movement is about changing the law, not breaking the law," said David Devereaux, director of the American Gamefowl Defense Network.
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Devereaux, who lives in Washington state, didn't return calls to his cellphone seeking comment, but in an electronic message said 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."
In cockfighting, two game birds, outfitted with sharpened spurs, are tossed into a ring, where they fight to the death. Spectators bet on the birds.
Michael Markarian, president of the Humane Society of the United States' Legislative Fund, said cockfighting is illegal in all 50 states and is a felony in 41.
He said it's a brutal sport in which people will sometimes suck blood out of an injured bird's throat and lungs to allow them to keep fighting.
It's a misdemeanor in Kentucky to take part in a cockfight and is punishable by up to a year in jail.
Craig Davis, president of the United Gamefowl Breeders Association, also attended the event. He said the issue of states' rights was discussed but "cockfighting was definitely a part of it."
He directed further questions to Devereaux.
It's the second time that cockfighting has made its way into the Senate race.
In February, Davis told the Lexington Herald-Leader that his group would "destroy Mitch McConnell" because he supported the federal farm bill.
That bill, in addition to setting agricultural policy and appropriating money for federal subsidy programs, also made it a federal crime punishable by a year in jail and a $100,000 fine to attend a cockfight or a dog fight.
The farm bill also makes it a crime punishable by three years in jail and a $250,000 fine to take a child to a cockfight or dog fight.
Bevin refuses to take a position on cockfighting, saying, through Semmel, only that it should be left up to states.
When the farm bill passed in February, Bevin criticized McConnell for supporting it but, in a news release issued at the time, didn't mention the cockfighting component as a reason he opposed the measure.
Markarian criticized Bevin for attending the event, saying that he has sided with lawbreakers.
"There are a handful of states where the penalties are very weak but a small, but vocal, group of cockfighters continues to engage in criminal activity," Markarian said. "But most politicians have left them behind."
Bevin's campaign wouldn't provide information about who invited him to speak at the event or provide emails or letters suggesting the event was a broader states' rights event rather than one geared solely toward legalizing cockfighting.
Rhonda Moore, the box office manager at the Corbin Arena, said it had been rented out by the Kentucky Gamefowl Breeders Association.
In a statement, Semmel said, "Matt spoke to a large gathering of folks at a states' rights rally this weekend where he introduced himself to many Eastern Kentucky voters, and encouraged those with widespread McConnell fatigue, that he's the best option to represent Kentucky in Washington."
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