MOREHEAD, Ky. (AP) — Kim Davis, the Kentucky clerk who went to jail in 2015 for refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, wants a second term in office.
Democrat Elwood Caudill Jr. is running against her, and the campaign has predictably turned to allegations of bigotry. But it's Caudill, not Davis, who has been forced to play defense.
Caudill won the Democratic nomination in May to face Davis, a Republican, in November. He defeated David Ermold, a gay man who was denied a marriage license by Davis in 2015.
Ermold was the sentimental favorite in the primary, raising more than $300,000 from thousands of donors across the country. But Caudill, a 21-year veteran of local government who ran on a pledge of better service at the clerk's office, trounced him in the primary.
Since then, Ermold has turned to Facebook to claim that Caudill is a bigot who uses anti-gay slurs and courts anti-LGBT voters. In an interview with The Associated Press, Ermold said he would not vote for either candidate. He said he was not concerned about his public criticisms of Caudill hurting his election chances.
"I just want him to lose. I would rather Kim Davis win," Ermold, 44, said. "At least Kim Davis has the integrity to stand up for what she believes in. Elwood Caudill is a liar."
Ermold said he has no firsthand knowledge of Caudill, 45, using anti-gay slurs. But he has posted screenshots of others on Facebook making the accusations, calling Caudill a bigot and urging others not to vote for him.
At least one person who made those accusations has since retracted them. Caudill showed The Associated Press lengthy private Facebook messages from one man who apologized and said his account had been hacked.
Caudill keeps a copy of those messages on his phone when he campaigns door-to-door in the evenings. He says lots of people ask him about the accusations, so he shows them the messages to convince them they aren't true.
"It's really hurt me," he said.
The Fairness Campaign, a statewide LGBT advocacy group, has a political action committee that is monitoring the race. Executive Director Chris Hartman said the group has not made an endorsement yet, but has sent questionnaires to Davis and Caudill to help the committee decide.
"Symbolically, the Rowan County Clerk's race is of critical importance for LGBTQ rights, not just in Morehead, but across the nation," Hartman said.
Caudill said the reaction to Ermold's posts was so strong, he felt compelled to publish a denial on his campaign's Facebook page. In the lengthy post, he denied Ermold's claims and accused him of spreading lies. He also stressed that if elected clerk, he would treat all people equally.
The accusations have frustrated Caudill, who said in a race against Kim Davis he did not expect to be defending himself against accusations of bigotry.
"Is it not ludicrous? It's just crazy," Caudill told the AP in an interview. "It doesn't make any sense to me."
The uproar has forced Caudill to do something he did not want to do: talk about Davis' decision in 2015 to stop issuing marriage licenses in response to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that effectively legalized same-sex marriage nationwide. Gay couples sued her, and Davis went to jail for refusing to follow a federal judge's order.
Davis, who declined to be interviewed for this story, was released from jail when her staff issued licenses in her absence, and the state legislature later passed a law removing the names of county clerks from marriage licenses. But the issue dominated news coverage for weeks, with satellite TV trucks parked at the courthouse and roving reporters seeking interviews from locals. The community recoiled at the attention, and Caudill made a point of not talking about it in the campaign.
"The last thing we want is more publicity with what happened in 2015. We need to lay that to rest and move on with the future," Caudill said. "We need to take that office into the 21st century where it needs to go and just treat everyone, regardless of anything, the same."
This annoys Ermold, who acknowledged he is "bitter" about losing the primary. He said he doesn't regret posting the messages about Caudill, even if they help Davis win. Ermold and his husband, David Moore, are also both board members of Morehead Pride, a local group that supports the LGBT community. He said the group won't be having a pride festival this year.
"We're not going to let it get politicized by him and the Democratic Party," he said, referring to Caudill.
Despite the controversy, Caudill says he thinks he has a good chance of defeating Davis in November. Rowan County has a strong local Democratic party, and most county officials are Democrats. Davis was elected as a Democrat in 2014 before switching parties. She beat Caudill by just 23 votes in the 2014 Democratic primary.
Caudill and Davis are scheduled to debate on Oct. 24.