By Ronnie Ellis
CNHI News Service
A public spat between two rising Republican Party of Kentucky stars may be the first indication of fraying alliances and rising tensions within the party as elected officials plot their next political steps.
Two weeks ago, Agriculture Commissioner James Comer went to Somerset, home of Republican state Sen. Chris Girdler and Fifth District U.S. Congressman Harold “Hal” Rogers, and told a chamber of commerce luncheon, “The days of party bosses hand-picking” candidates “must end,” telling the audience he “cannot be controlled.”
Comer, who has said he’s interested in running for governor in 2015, made his comments at a Somerset Pulaski County Chamber of Commerce luncheon held in the Center for Rural Development, built with federal funds secured by Rogers, and Girdler is the chamber’s president. Though he mentioned no one by name, many wondered if Comer was talking about Rogers or maybe even Sen. Mitch McConnell who faces a tough re-election battle next year.
Rogers split with Comer on the legalization of hemp during the 2013 General Assembly, primarily because of Rogers’ focus on substance abuse in Eastern Kentucky. Comer’s comments came at a time some Republicans are talking about a potential gubernatorial candidacy by Louisville Metro Councilman and Republican Hal Heiner. Some have suggested Rogers has encouraged Heiner privately and there’s been speculation that Girdler might be an attractive running mate for Heiner, though all three dismissed the speculation Wednesday.
Rogers and Comer talked after Comer’s comments, but Comer subsequently told WFPL Public Radio in Louisville that it is time for Eastern Kentucky’s economy to “move beyond coal” and maybe the voters of the region needed to elect “new leadership.”
Wednesday, Comer would only say he and Rogers “had a private conversation.” But he said he got a warm welcome at the chamber luncheon, and the crowd stood and applauded when he finished.
The latest salvo came in an op-ed by Girdler published Wednesday in the Somerset Commonwealth-Journal, a CNHI paper. Girdler wrote that he is saddened by divisions in the state, the country and “the GOP today” and said those “wounds were opened even deeper after the baffling remarks” by Comer before the chamber luncheon.
“I hope Commissioner Comer and any other gubernatorial aspirants will turn from the politics of personal destruction and focus on uniting our party,” Girdler writes.
The Commonwealth-Journal also published an interview with Comer who said, “I’m shocked, disappointed and confused by Girdler’s manifesto. I really don’t know what he’s talking about.”
Girdler told CNHI Wednesday, “I commend and applaud the work James Comer has done at the Agriculture Department and wish him and his family nothing but the best.
“The op-ed speaks for itself,” Girdler said. “I said what needed to be said. I want to – and I’m willing to – move forward to help the commonwealth of Kentucky.”
Girdler said he isn’t looking for a spot on a gubernatorial ticket. “I can genuinely say to anyone thinking about making me such a generous offer: thanks, but no thanks. My wife and 4-year-old daughter are my top priorities.”
As for whether Rogers might have encouraged Heiner to run, the congressman said he’s focused on federal issues and the upcoming December summit in Pikeville focusing on improving eastern Kentucky’s economy in the wake of the layoffs of 6,000 miners in the region.
“The governor’s race is at least 18 months away, and I have made my intentions of staying out of that primary very clear, both privately and publicly,” Rogers said. “As chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, I’m working on our federal budget to avoid another government shutdown.”
Several Republicans have told CNHI News that McConnell has told both Heiner and Comer if they intend to run for governor, they’re better off getting in “sooner than later,” because some in the McConnell camp believe Kentuckians get more excited about a governor’s race than a U.S. Senate race and the added energy might benefit McConnell’s re-election. It might also “distract” Republicans from the primary challenge McConnell faces from Louisville investment manager Matt Bevin.
“Sen. McConnell has not encouraged me to run for governor,” Heiner said Wednesday. “But he is aware that I am strongly considering the race.”
McConnell’s campaign spokeswoman said McConnell hasn’t encouraged anyone’s early entry into the 2015 governor’s race but hasn’t discouraged them either.
“Sen. McConnell has told anyone with an eye on the governor’s race that they should start whenever they think best and need not worry about stepping on his toes if they start before his re-election is over,” said Allison Moore, adding McConnell realizes it takes time to build an effective organization to run for governor.
Comer agreed with Moore’s description of his conversations with McConnell, declining to elaborate.
Comer is close to Kentucky’s other Republican Sen. Rand Paul whose nephew-by-marriage and 2010 campaign manager Jesse Benton is managing McConnell’s re-election campaign. But Benton was heard on a tape earlier this year saying he was holding his nose, working for McConnell in order to benefit Paul and his presidential ambitions.
Many of Bevin’s supporters are also Paul supporters and they’re not happy with McConnell’s attacks which Bevin’s honesty. That prompted Paul to say he supports McConnell’s re-election but knows Bevin who he said is “a good and Christian man.” Benton responded by saying he thought Paul “misspoke” but Paul quickly said he meant what he said.
As one Republican state legislator, who didn’t want his name used, put it Wednesday, it’s creating a complicated and uncomfortable landscape for a lot of Republicans to navigate.
Ronnie Ellis writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at email@example.com. Follow CNHI News Service stories on Twitter at ww.twitter.com/cnhifrankfort.