After Near-Miss in Kentucky Governor’s Race, James Comer Tries a Congressional Comeback

Observers say the scandal that overtook the May GOP primary for governor won’t affect James Comer’s bid for Congress in 2016.

James Comer speaks to supporters following the Kentucky Republican gubernatorial primary on May 19 in Frankfort, Kentucky.
AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley
Oct. 20, 2015, 8 p.m.

Back in May, James Comer lost the Re­pub­lic­an primary for gov­ernor of Ken­tucky by a mere 83 votes. Once seen as the likely next gov­ernor of the state, Comer was hit with scan­dal and hampered by an un­ex­pec­tedly nasty, crowded, and high-spend­ing GOP cam­paign.

But just five months later, the Ken­tucky ag­ri­cul­ture com­mis­sion­er is mount­ing an­oth­er bid for of­fice that’s ex­pec­ted to at­tract fierce in­tra-Re­pub­lic­an com­pet­i­tion—and could once again dredge up the al­leg­a­tions that prob­ably sank his run for gov­ernor. With Rep. Ed Whit­field re­tir­ing, Comer is already cam­paign­ing for a safely Re­pub­lic­an con­gres­sion­al dis­trict in West­ern Ken­tucky.

Two weeks be­fore the gubernat­ori­al primary, Comer’s col­lege girl­friend told the Louis­ville Cour­i­er-Journ­al that he had phys­ic­ally ab­used her. The al­leg­a­tions, helped along by a rival cam­paign, took over the last days of the primary cam­paign and likely bumped Comer to that nar­row loss, even as his cam­paign aired TV ads in which the can­did­ate’s wife touted his char­ac­ter and val­ues.

But Comer said he doesn’t be­lieve that line of at­tack will have the same im­pact in the GOP primary for Whit­field’s rur­al dis­trict.

“I don’t think any­one can ever pull a stunt like that again,” Comer said. “One can­did­ate used it as an is­sue—[Hal] Hein­er—and he dropped like a lead bal­loon. One can­did­ate de­fen­ded me in the primary and shot up, and that was [Matt] Bev­in,” who won the nom­in­a­tion.

“That was a turn­ing point for all three cam­paigns,” Comer said. “… We were pre­pared for [neg­at­ive ads]. We were not pre­pared for that Cour­i­er-Journ­al story and those al­leg­a­tions.”

The gubernat­ori­al primary was seen as a tos­sup by the end of the cam­paign, but now, Comer is seen as the early con­gres­sion­al front-run­ner. He won 55 per­cent of the GOP gubernat­ori­al primary vote in this dis­trict, which is also where his fun­drais­ing base is rooted. Comer said that the ma­jor­ity of the polit­ic­al and fin­an­cial op­er­a­tion from his last cam­paign re­mains, and that he’s already re­ceived sup­port from those in the dis­trict who backed Hein­er and Bev­in in the gov­ernor’s race.

“Since the [gubernat­ori­al] cam­paign, I’ve been a good sport. We’ve kept in con­stant com­mu­nic­a­tion with the or­gan­iz­a­tion,” Comer said. “At the end of the day, we ran a very pos­it­ive race, and I think the way we con­duc­ted ourselves through es­pe­cially the last two weeks of that race is what helped lead us to the po­s­i­tion that we’ve star­ted from in this con­gres­sion­al cam­paign.”

Yet, as in 2015, Comer won’t have a clear path be­fore him. Former Whit­field dis­trict dir­ect­or Mi­chael Pa­pe and Hick­man County At­tor­ney Jason Batts have also an­nounced they’ll run, and a hand­ful of oth­er Re­pub­lic­ans’ names are be­ing floated, too.

Still, Re­pub­lic­ans think Comer is at the top of the pack. And they said the al­leg­a­tions that plagued the end of his run for gov­ernor would not af­fect him this time—and that oth­er can­did­ates would prob­ably do well to avoid them.

“I think a lot of polit­ic­al people were sur­prised at the re­si­li­ency that Comer showed when he ac­tu­ally picked up or main­tained sup­port after that story came out,” said Al Cross, a colum­nist for the Cour­i­er-Journ­al and long­time ob­serv­er of state polit­ics.

“I think Comer is a su­per­i­or can­did­ate with a su­per­i­or re­sume in this race,” said Ken­tucky Re­pub­lic­an strategist Scott Jen­nings, who now works as a con­sult­ant for Jeb Bush’s pres­id­en­tial cam­paign. “My gut in­stinct is that voters are go­ing to be look­ing for some­body with a bit broad­er ex­per­i­ence, so Comer prob­ably of­fers that more so than Pa­pe in this case.”

While he’s nev­er run for pub­lic of­fice, Pa­pe—who worked for Whit­field for more than two dec­ades—said that his long ca­reer work­ing with con­stitu­ents in the dis­trict gives him an ad­vant­age. Pa­pe said he plans to stay away from neg­at­ive tac­tics. “I’m go­ing to run a pos­it­ive cam­paign. I’m go­ing to talk about what I bring to the table and what’s unique from any oth­er can­did­ate.”

Pa­pe said that his former boss plans to en­dorse him, a po­ten­tial boon in a dis­trict that hasn’t seen an open con­gres­sion­al race in dec­ades. (Whit­field’s polit­ic­al of­fice didn’t re­spond to a re­quest for com­ment.) Both Whit­field and Pa­pe en­dorsed Comer for gov­ernor last year.

“It’s not everything, ob­vi­ously, but it’s something to say, look, I don’t have a pub­lic re­cord be­cause I’ve nev­er run for pub­lic of­fice be­fore, but I have a re­cord of ser­vice, … and that I’ve been a part of a team that’s really made a dif­fer­ence for the 1st Con­gres­sion­al Dis­trict,” Pa­pe said.

But as Pa­pe noted, en­dorse­ments aren’t everything. “I think people cer­tainly re­spect Ed Whit­field. … But I tend to think in a primary like this, folks are go­ing to want to be look­ing for can­did­ates who can stand on their own, be­cause the only line on Mi­chael Pa­pe’s re­sume is as­sist­ant to Ed Whit­field,” Jen­nings said.

While the out­come of this next primary is un­cer­tain, Comer is clear on one thing. “I do not see a scen­ario where I ever run for gov­ernor of Ken­tucky,” Comer said. “I want to be a good con­gress­man for the 1st Con­gres­sion­al Dis­trict.”

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