Democrats wonder hope: Is Progress KY a McConnell front group?

On one hand, Progress Kentucky has succeeded in ways most political-action committees rarely do.  In only four or five months of existence, they have driven the national news cycle not once but twice.  Unfortunately for Progress KY and Democrats in the state, they’ve been the scandal both times.  Their operatives turned out to be behind the racist tweets attacking Mitch McConnell’s wife Elaine Chao, and now they’ve allegedly managed to out-bumble the Watergate burglars in secretly recording a McConnell campaign meeting, in which they were most definitely not participants.

BuzzFeed calls Progress KY the “least effective liberal group” in the state, and that’s saying something:

It’s probably possible for a political group to be worse at accomplishing its core mission than Progress Kentucky is, but it’s difficult to imagine how.

In its short lifespan, the super PAC focused solely on defeating Sen. Mitch McConnell has instead helped the Republican incumbent deflect his low approval rating and conservative critics by subjecting McConnell to comically incompetent political attacks.

“They’ve managed to become McConnell’s favorite whipping boy,” said Jimmy Cauley, a longtime Kentucky Democratic strategist. “It’s kind of laughable because they didn’t exist four months ago. And yet they’ve gotten wrapped up in a string of four or five controversies.”

These guys didn’t even study Watergate long enough to grasp the concept of plausible deniability:

Progress Kentucky’s founder, Shawn Reilly, has denied responsibility for incident — which is now under investigation by the FBI — and has instead saddled the blame with Curtis Morrison, whom Reilly’s attorney calls a “former volunteer” for the PAC.

“Shawn is completely innocent of any criminal wrongdoing,” said Annie O’Connell, Reilly’s lawyer. “He is a witness not a suspect. He has fully cooperated with the with the United States Attorney’s office for the Western district of Kentucky since the recording became public.” …

But Morrison, a Louisville blogger and activist, is actually a former top official with the organization who resigned in March after Progress Kentucky’s last major scandal. BuzzFeed tracked him down, and over email he said he’s “not making a statement at this time.” He did not respond to multiple follow-up calls.

Kentucky Democrats insist that they have nothing to do with Progress KY, but that’s not going to make much difference when the election rolls around.  What the voters will remember will be the racist attacks on McConnell’s wife and the dirty-tricks campaign that produced the non-story that Democrats — at least until it began backfiring — embraced enthusiastically.

The epic faceplant has done what had once looked impossible — make Mitch McConnell a sympathetic figure.  That leads some to wonder whether Progress KY was a front group for McConnell all along — or rather, hope that it was:

The recording of the McConnell strategy session — whether or not it was illegal — is embarrassing, but not damaging enough to commit political seppuku over. And the tape was released after the focus of the conversation, Judd, had decided not to run. Then there’s the fact that the group, while great at generating McConnell-friendly headlines, appears either unable or uninterested in raising money.

“Last election cycle, in which $6 billion was spent by candidates and outside groups, Progress Kentucky raised $1,005,” says Salon‘s Seitz-Wald. “They spent $18. Yes, you read that right.”

But for the theory to be true, Kentucky Progress would have to be a pretty deep-cover operation. Local Kentucky politics site Page One is running a series on the “dark” past of Shawn Reilly, whom it describes as a “Democratic Party operative.” And Reilly is involved enough that he was a delegate to the 2012 Democratic National Convention. Curtis Morrison is a local journalist and blogger.

Unfortunately for Democrats, Progress Kentucky is probably closer to the Three Stooges than a stooge for McConnell. The idea that the group is secretly working for the GOP is “wishful thinking on the part of Democrats,” Scott Jennings, chairman of the pro-McConnell PAC Kentuckians for Strong Leadership, tells BuzzFeed. But he is sympathetic to the other party’s desire to move “as far away from these people as possible.” Progress Kentucky is made up of “morons,” and “I don’t know how to measure exactly how badly they’ve damaged Democratic chances in this race, but it is at least a bushel or a barrelful.”

And whoever Democrats nominate to run against McConnell will get to own this disaster, too. Maybe Alison Lundergan Grimes will need to rethink her 2014 plans with that in mind.

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