By RONNIE ELLIS
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 the GOP’s 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 themes of a “new kind of politics” that 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 quietly supported 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 that 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. Rep. Harold Hal Rogers.
Comer champions the legalization of industrial hemp, something Rogers fears could 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 interpreted as a direct jab at Rogers, although Comer might have also been thinking of U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell’s history of inserting himself into Republican gubernatorial campaigns.
Rumors are circulating that Heiner has chosen a running mate – national Republican committeewoman K.C. Crosbie of Lexington, who ran a competitive but unsuccessful 2011 race against Democratic state Treasurer Todd Hollenbach.
Neither Heiner nor Crosbie have directly addressed 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 publicly announce his plans in the next couple of weeks, while Comer prefers that Republican hopefuls wait until after the November elections so the party can concentrate on efforts to wrest majority control of the state House 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.”
Comer told the audience here Saturday about efficiencies he’s implemented at the agriculture department and said he’s actually requesting less funding from the legislature in the next two-year budget.
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