This week in politics: Praise the home team, beware undercover agents

It’s only Thursday, but this week in politics already has offered more than a few reminders of the basic rules. To wit:

--Never diss the home team. 

--Check the video, carefully.

--Assume that words spoken in private will soon become very public.

--And, when worrying aloud about undercover federal agents, make sure the person you’re speaking to isn’t one.

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Basketball is more than a sport in Kentucky. Its rivalries are deep and generational, its defeats neither forgotten nor forgiven. So it was with no little embarrassment that Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, embroiled in a pesky primary fight and looking to a high-profile general election challenge, found that his online campaign video meant to tout the locals had included shots of another team. Not just any other team: Duke, the Kentucky Wildcats’ fierce rival, particularly since a 1992 regional championship game in which the Blue Devils crushed Kentucky’s national title hopes with a last-second shot.

McConnell’s spokeswoman properly described the campaign as “horrified” by the mistake and blamed it on a vendor. The snippet was replaced, but the new one was problematic as well; it featured a current Kentucky player, an inclusion that threatened to run afoul of NCAA rules. The video ultimately was pulled.

Unfortunately for McConnell, there’s a big overlap between sports and politics aficionados, which gave the error more resonance. Everyone piled on, with the Lexington Herald-Leader headline calling McConnell’s move “a flagrant foul.”

“KY, as your next Senator, I promise to never glorify a Duke championship in a campaign ad like @Team_Mitch,” faux-bristled Alison Lundergan Grimes, a Democrat running for McConnell’s seat. “Turns out @Team_Mitch has been in DC for so long he can't tell the difference between UK & Duke basketball.”

Touche, but not for long. Lexington political writer Sam Youngman noted a certain lack of geographic loyalty in Grimes’ own March Madness picks.

“Grimes had Kentucky losing to Wichita State in her tournament bracket, picking Florida to beat Louisville in the final game,” he wrote.

Kentucky will play another rival, in-state Louisville, in the Sweet 16 round of the NCAA tournament Friday night.

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McConnell’s video may have been embarrassing, but it was not nearly as mind-bendingly suggestive as one aired by Iowa Senate candidate Joni Ernst. The candidate, a Republican state senator in a crowded GOP field, dives right into that rare conversation about … pig testicles.

“I’m Joni Ernst. I grew up castrating hogs on an Iowa farm, so when I get to Washington I’ll know how to cut pork,” she says.

As thoughts turn graphically to the potential of knives on politicians, Ernst smiles pleasantly at the camera, and then the screen is filled with video of charming piglets in their stalls. They seem happy and, presumably, intact.

“My parents taught us to live within our means; it’s time to force Washington to do the same,” she says, then gives the metaphor a final push: “I’m Joni Ernst and I approve this message, because Washington’s full of big spenders. Let’s make ‘em squeal.”

Ouch. Then again, it’s Iowa.

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And if there’s one thing you don’t do in Iowa, it’s mock farmers. Particularly farmers from Iowa.

Bruce Braley, the Democratic congressman running for the seat held by retiring Sen. Tom Harkin, has an open field in the primary and has led Ernst and another Republican, retired businessman Mark Jacobs, in early polling. But that was before Tuesday.

That was when the Republican-allied "super PAC" America Rising released video it said was taken at a Texas trial lawyers’ fundraiser, where trial lawyer Braley had made the pitch for keeping the Senate in Democratic hands by mentioning the state’s other senator, Republican Charles E. Grassley. 

“To put this in stark contrast, if you help me win this race, you may have someone with your background, your experience, your voice, someone’s who’s been literally fighting tort reform for 30 years in a visible and public way on the Senate Judiciary Committee, or you might have a farmer from Iowa who never went to law school, never practiced law, serving as the next chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee," Braley is seen saying. "Because if Democrats lose the majority, Chuck Grassley will be the next chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee.”

So many insults in so little space—to Grassley's 33-year Senate tenure, to farmers, to Iowa. Braley soon apologized.

“I apologize to Sen. Grassley and anyone I may have offended,” Braley said. “I respect Sen. Grassley and enjoy our working relationship even though we disagree on some issues.” 

Just a guess: Like trial lawyers.

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Even counting Braley, however, no one had a worse week than Leland Yee. He started Wednesday as a state senator and promising candidate for California secretary of state and ended it manacled in the federal courthouse in San Francisco, where he was charged with conspiring to commit wire fraud and illegally traffic in firearms.

The 137-page affidavit submitted by federal investigators outlined accusations worthy of a sequel to “American Hustle,” itself a paean to  alleged political wrongdoing decades ago.

Among the characters: Raymond Chow, an alleged Chinatown crime lord known as “Shrimp Boy,” and Keith Jackson, a former San Francisco school board president and political consultant to Democrat Yee, among others.

The indictment alleges, as The Times reported, that Yee and Jackson conspired to defraud Californians of  "honest services." Their scheme was said to involve trafficking firearms—Yee is a gun control advocate, making his alleged actions all the more cynical--in exchange for campaign donations. 

Among the crushing elements of the affidavit was the account of a conversation that Yee was said to have had with an undercover agent.

“Sen. Yee advised he needed to be careful because of the recent indictment and conviction of another California state senator,” the undercover agent alleged.

“Sen. Yee believed the other state senator was wearing a 'wire' for the FBI. Sen. Yee thought the other state senator was a classic example of involving too many people in illegal activities.”

The comment about one undercover agent uttered to another apparently referred to state Sen. Ronald S. Calderon of Montebello, who has been indicted and has pleaded not guilty to charges of bribery and money laundering. Yee becomes the third California Democrat caught in legal danger this year, after Calderon and Sen. Rod Wright of Los Angeles, who was convicted in January of perjury and voter fraud.

Needless to say, all parties have claimed innocence, their political futures suddenly the least of their concerns.

Cathleen.Decker@latimes.com

Twitter: @cathleendecker