As Kentucky Republicans plot a takeover of the state House this year, one important legislative contest has taken an especially nasty turn.
Democrat Ashley Miller and Republican Phil Moffett are vying for an open seat in east Louisville that has been defined as a bellwether for GOP hopes.
In order to win a House majority, the GOP must defend 42 incumbents and pick up nine seats.
More than any other state legislative race, Miller and Moffett offer voters plenty of contrasts to consider.
A former gubernatorial candidate, Moffett is a conservative businessman with close ties to the tea party. Among Moffett’s supporters is U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, who held a fundraiser for the GOP candidate over the summer.
Miller is a former Miss Kentucky and making her first bid for public office. She currently works as a nurse practitioner at Planned Parenthood and is a vocal supporter of President Obama’s health care overhaul.
Those personal and policy differences are just part of the narrative in a race, which could have historic ramifications either way.
Miller would be the first African-American woman elected to the state legislature in over a decade, which observers say is one reason a political website attacking Miller is especially telling.
The attack site—SubmergeKentucky—is currently under construction. Screenshots obtained by WFPL show it hyped Miller’s work as a model and nurse.
Referring to the political newcomer as “Trashley Miller,” the page claims she is involved in providing “abortion referral services” for Planned Parenthood. It also slams Miller for appearing on a 2012 album cover by the Kentucky-based hip-hop group Nappy Roots.
“Nappy Roots is a popular gangster RAP group based in Bowling Green, Ky.,” the site said above two pictures of the album, which is titled “S—’s Beautiful.” The dual covers show Miller sitting in a bathroom stall. One version shows her sitting there with her underwear around her ankles.
“Ms. Miller is featured on the cover of their mixtape CD! But she ain’t just a model,” the site said. “(S)he’s a bad “MF” model!”
Miller said there have been few public attacks in the race since the May primary, but that this attack crosses the line.
“It’s unfortunate the other side is spending their time to look at ways to tear me apart versus paying attention to what it is that the people actually need,” she said. “For my campaign as a whole it’s a distraction of the issues that I’m focused on such as education and the economy.”
Miller said she isn’t ashamed of her modeling career and said she has never provided abortion services while working at Planned Parenthood.
It is unclear who is behind the “Submerge” site. No individuals or group has taken responsibility for its content. Information obtained through web service provider GoDaddy.com shows the site was created Aug. 4, but due to privacy settings no name or organization is publicly associated with it.
WFPL sent a message to the “SubmergeKentucky” site e-mail address seeking comment, but that request has not yet been returned.
Republican state Sen. Julie Denton, who lives in the House district, shared one of the photos appearing on the site with a reporter two weeks ago. She said Miller’s modeling pictures have been circulating for months.
“I know a lot of people who have seen them and traded them around quite a bit,” she said.
The GOP lawmaker couldn’t recall who sent her the initial e-mails containing the photos, and she said she had deleted them since then. She also denied having anything to do with the site.
“I wouldn’t even know how to put up a website. I don’t anything about any of this,” said Denton, who called the photographs inappropriate.
Asked about the site’s contents, Moffett said his campaign isn’t connected to the attacks and “SubmergeKentucky” shouldn’t be published. He also reiterated, however, Miller’s modeling career shows she is unqualified for office.
“Voters need to be the ones to decide whether an inappropriately dressed model of RAP artists, who also worked as a Pregnancy Options Counselor for Planned Parenthood, is the appropriate person to represent them in public office,” he said.
Nestled in the St. Matthews and Glendale neighborhoods in east Louisville, the House 32nd District seat has been in GOP hands for years. Miller’s campaign is hopeful, however, given women are in the majority and that Democrats outnumber Republicans among registered voters.
Observers said part of the attack site’s motive is to undermine those advantages with an overt attempt to question Miller’s decision-making by using her gender and race as a negative in the minds of voters.
“We all do things in our past, but of course with women anything associated with their bodies are often more demonized in public,” said University of Louisville political science professor Sherri Wallace.
“When you look at gender privilege, men can do these types of things in terms of sexuality that women in a sense, because of the way we view them and their roles, women are not. If they do it’s seen in a more negative fashion and we’re less forgiving of women when they do things like this.”
Miller’s supporters argue the attack site is out of bounds and blamed state Republicans for its contents.
“The Republicans are coming after a woman who has stepped up to run for office, she is the first person in her family to attend college, and she would be the first African-American woman in the General Assembly in over 14 years,” said Democratic activist Jennifer Moore, chair of Emerge Kentucky, which recruited Miller to run for office. “We don’t even know who is behind them. They won’t even step up and say who is behind the ads, and they just have no place in today’s political arena.”
A spokeswoman for the Kentucky Republican Party did not return our request for comment.