Ronnie Ellis

When Republican Agriculture Commissioner James Comer went to Republican U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers’ hometown to say, “The days of party bosses hand-picking candidates must end,” people noticed.

When former Rogers staffer and Republican state Sen. Chris Girdler responded with an op-ed in the Somerset Commonwealth Journal that Comer’s “baffling remarks” deepened existing wounds, people also noticed.

But they may not notice the spat is an example of prior grievances and complicated present alliances inside the Republican Party of Kentucky.

Rogers and Comer differ on the legalization of hemp, and there’s been scuttlebutt Rogers encouraged Louisville Metro Councilman Hal Heiner to run for governor against presumptive favorite Comer. Heiner and Rogers dismiss those rumors.

Others speculated Comer also was talking about U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, who has a history of inserting himself into other Republican campaigns. Rogers was believed to be interested in running for governor in 2003, but McConnell backed Ernie Fletcher. Then McConnell and Senate colleague Jim Bunning abandoned Fletcher for Anne Northup in 2007.

In 2010, McConnell pushed Bunning out of the Senate race and supported Trey Grayson against tea party upstart Rand Paul. When that didn’t work out, McConnell moved into Paul’s corner. And they are now (uneasy?) allies, each coveting the other’s blessing to advance his own political aspirations.

As William Faulkner said: the past isn’t dead; it’s not even past. People remember. They choose sides.

McConnell faces his toughest re-election fight next year, his life-long goal of becoming Senate Majority Leader agonizingly within reach but not yet quite within his grasp. In the same election cycle, Republicans see a chance to gain control of the state House to go with the state Senate they already control. The following year, there’s an open governor’s seat.

Comer garnered more votes than any other candidate, Democrat or Republican, in 2011, making him the presumed favorite in 2015. Then comes 2016 and Paul’s dreams of running for president.

McConnell hoped to head off a primary challenge by hiring Paul’s nephew and family operative, Jesse Benton, as his campaign manager. But Matt Bevin and tea party groups aren’t cooperating. Many Bevin supporters are Paul supporters, although Paul is backing McConnell.

Each time McConnell attacks Bevin, it alienates people in the Paul camp, some of whom are peeved Paul backed McConnell anyway. When McConnell and Benton look to Paul for help with Bevin, Paul says Bevin is “a good and Christian man.”

McConnell is also going after Jim DeMint’s Senate Conservative Fund for backing tea party challenges to Republican incumbents. DeMint is a Paul backer and tea party icon.

McConnell lauds Comer for cleaning up the Agriculture Department. But in Rogers’ end of the state some Republicans believe Comer “threw Richie under the bus,” when he teamed with Democratic Auditor Adam Edelen for an investigation that led to Richie Farmer’s indictment.

Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, is close to Rogers. His Majority Leader, Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, aligns himself with those who hold tea party sentiment. Increasingly, old hands from the Fletcher administration show up in Stivers’ state Senate operation. Stivers’ wife, Regina, works for McConnell but used to work for Bunning and before that Fletcher, both of whom feel McConnell betrayed them.

It’s downright complicated being a Kentucky Republican these days.

CLARIFICATION: In last week’s column I called Jerry Ford the country’s first un-elected president. A vigilant reader in Somerset reminded me four vice presidents ascended to the top job and were not re-elected. She’s right. But they were chosen by the electorate for a job which presumes its occupant may become president. Ford was appointed vice president.

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

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