The Richmond Register

February 24, 2014

Comer positioning with gubernatorial politicking

By Ronnie Ellis
CNHI News Service

CAVE CITY — The roughly 400 Republicans at Saturday night’s Barren County Lincoln Day Dinner here were primarily focused on the U.S. Senate race and Republican hopes to take over the state House of Representatives this fall.

But there was some early gubernatorial politicking as well.

Republican Agriculture Commissioner James Comer was warmly received and his speech reflected his themes of a “new kind of politics” he’s championed while positioning himself for a 2015 run for governor.

Comer hails from neighboring Monroe County and he’s well-known in Barren County, so well-known that some local Democrats quiet supported Republican Comer’s 2011 campaign. Benson Bell, brother of Glasgow Democratic state Rep. Johnny Bell works for Comer. Also on hand were several Metcalfe County Republicans Comer represented in the legislature.

Comer got more votes than any other statewide candidate in 2011 despite the poor performance of Republican gubernatorial candidate David Williams at the top of the ticket. That immediately made Comer the Republican front-runner for 2015 in many Republicans’ views.

But as Comer acknowledged in a brief interview Saturday night, sometimes plans go awry.

Former Louisville Metro Councilman Hal Heiner is an all-but-announced candidate for the Republican nomination. He’s wealthy enough to self-finance at least a portion of his campaign and he’s believed to enjoy support from some in the Republican network of Fifth District U.S. Congressman Harold Hal Rogers.

Comer champions the legalization of industrial hemp, something Rogers fears may undercut his fight against drug abuse. Comer went to Somerset last fall for a speech in which he said the days of Republican kingmakers choosing the party’s candidates in smoke-filled rooms are over.

It was seen as a direct jab at Rogers though Comer might have also been thinking of U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell’s history of inserting himself into Republican gubernatorial campaigns.

Rumors are circulating Heiner has chosen a running mate – national Republican committee woman K.C. Crosbie of Lexington, who ran a competitive but unsuccessful 2011 race against Democratic state Treasurer Todd Hollenbach.

Neither Heiner nor Crosbie will directly address the rumors so far – but in Republican circles it’s considered a done deal. That includes Comer. (Crosbie declined to comment when contacted by CNHI News.)

“I’m not surprised at all,” Comer said. He suggested Crosbie may have first declined Heiner’s office only to be persuaded by outside forces, some of them aligned with other candidates or with retired highway construction mogul Leonard Lawson. (Sources close to Crosbie and Lawson flatly deny that’s true.)

Heiner is expected to make a public announcement of his plans sometime in the next couple of weeks while Comer prefers Republican hopefuls to wait until after the November elections so the party can concentrate on efforts to wrest majority control of the state House of Representatives from the Democrats. That’s what Comer has previously said he plans to do but he hedged a bit Saturday night.

“Well, that’s the plan,” Comer said. “But now, sometimes plans don’t work out the way you’d hoped.”

On top of his pointed comments in Somerset last fall, Comer has openly called for a different kind of Republican message, one that focuses on new ideas, fresh faces and fiscal efficiency while not alienating younger and minority voters. It’s similar to the approach of U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Bowling Green, who is eyeing a 2016 race for president and has said the party must adapt and welcome new supporters and ideas or continue losing national elections.

Comer told the audience here Saturday about efficiencies he’s implemented at the Agriculture Department and said he’s actually requesting less funding for the legislature in the next two-year budget.

He said he’s privatized some department functions and reduced employees. That approach demonstrates “the difference between Republicans and Democrats,” Comer said.

He might have said it’s also a difference between some Republicans.

Comer succeeded now disgraced Republican Richie Farmer who is headed to prison for misappropriating public funds. But Farmer remains an icon in parts of the Republican rural heartland in south central and southeastern Kentucky counties represented by Rogers.

Ronnie Ellis writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at Follow CNHI News Service stories on Twitter at