SOMERSET — In the days leading up to his remarks Tuesday at the Pulaski County Chamber of Commerce, Agriculture Commissioner James Comer began referring to them as “the Fort Sumter speech.”
To most of the 100 or so farmers and merchants gathered, Comer’s words appeared far removed from the first battle in the Civil War, but there was a great deal more going on for some, especially in one departure that seemed at odds with the rest of Comer’s routine luncheon speech.
“The days of party bosses hand-picking elected officials in smoke-filled rooms must end,” said Comer, who is mentioned often as a likely Republican gubernatorial candidate. “No more scenarios where party bosses send some guy from, say, Louisville, who has never been to Somerset before and order you to support him because [they] can control him.”
Most of the crowd, subdued by Butterball turkey breast, didn’t know what to make of it when Comer veered and declared, “I cannot be controlled.”
But to a handful, the message was clear: Comer was warning what he views as establishment Republicans — be it U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell or state Sen. Chris Girdler — not to meddle in the 2015 governor’s race.
Standing there in the Center for Rural Development, a building Rogers secured federal funding to build, Comer was all smiles. But for weeks, Comer has stewed, believing, as he puts it, “there’s an effort from somewhere to jump-start the governor’s race from a handful of people in Louisville.”
“I think there is a part of the old guard that wants to continue to run candidates who campaign on social issues exclusively who are very cautious and oppose agendas to move Kentucky forward,” Comer said in an interview last week. “There are people that think the governor’s race should start now. I strongly disagree.”
Comer’s comments come after McConnell biographer John David Dyche wrote in an Oct. 22 column for WDRB-TV that former Louisville mayoral candidate Hal Heiner was preparing to run for governor.
“Multiple GOP sources now say Heiner is indeed going to make a gubernatorial bid,” Dyche wrote. “They also say that he will have help, perhaps behind the scenes, from [U.S. Rep.] Hal Rogers of Somerset.”
Comer, who has endorsed McConnell’s re-election bid, and others believe some in the GOP want a Republican to enter the governor’s race so that a Democrat will have to file, taking money and attention away from Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes while whipping up enthusiasm among Republicans eager to take the governor’s mansion.
While Comer said he didn’t “necessarily think” McConnell was one of the people pushing for Heiner to enter the race, McConnell and Rogers were absent from the list of politicians Comer told the crowd on Tuesday that he admires.
Comer mentioned House Republican Floor Leader Jeff Hoover, state Rep. Tommy Turner, who made it to the speech limping after breaking his leg bear hunting about eight weeks ago, and U.S. Sen. Rand Paul.
“These leaders represent the people; not the special interests,” Comer said.
Hoover introduced Comer Tuesday as “the next governor in the state of Kentucky.”
“I think Commissioner Comer is speaking for a lot of folks [who] express frustration from time to time at those on top choosing who the candidates are and dictating what other people should or should not do,” Hoover said after the speech. “And that’s a growing concern that I hear among rank-and-file voters of both parties.”
After his remarks, Comer acknowledged that he had been asked to start a campaign for governor earlier this year. He declined to say who had done so, adding: “I’m not going to name names — today.”
Comer, who has made legalizing hemp his signature issue, is winning widespread praise for his handling of the Department of Agriculture after former commissioner Richer Farmer’s steep fall from grace. But Comer is adamant that he will not announce his gubernatorial intentions until after next year’s elections.
Heiner could not be reached for comment Tuesday, as he was scouting locations for deer hunting this weekend. In August, Heiner told The Courier-Journal that he hasn’t “closed the door on a campaign for the future.”
“But as of today I really have no plans,” Heiner said. “I’d say it’s at the level of consideration, but not beyond that.”
Paul, no stranger to being the odd man out when the establishment picks a candidate, appears to have Comer’s back, remembering that Comer was one of, if not the only, state representative to endorse Paul’s Senate bid in the 2010 GOP primary.
“Sen. Paul has a very good working relationship with James Comer, and I know Sen. Paul greatly appreciates his independence and leadership,” said Dan Bayens, Paul’s Kentucky spokesman.
To that end, Jesse Benton, who ran Paul’s 2010 general election campaign and now sits at the helm of McConnell’s 2014 re-elect effort, said McConnell “just thinks the world of Jamie Comer and is just so impressed by what he’s done picking up the pieces of a broken agency and completely turning it around.”
“All Sen. McConnell has said to anybody that’s asked him is that they don’t need to worry about him or his feelings when it comes to starting the governor’s race for 2015,” Benton said. “And he’s fine with them starting whenever is best for them.”
Rogers, who has strongly opposed efforts to legalize hemp because of its close relationship to marijuana, reiterated to the Lexington Herald-Leader last month that he is not getting involved with the GOP primary for governor, rebutting Dyche’s assessment that Rogers was supporting Heiner.
“I’ve not said anything like that privately or publicly,” Rogers said. “I’m not taking part in the governor’s race, so no.”
The more immediate recipient of Comer’s remarks on Tuesday was Girdler, seated to the left of the podium as Comer spoke.
Girdler, a Somerset Republican and former district director for Rogers, is considered by Comer allies to be the sherpa leading an effort by Heiner to get in the race early and with enough of his own money to make a run for the governor’s mansion prohibitively expensive.
Girdler, after the speech, was nonplussed, calmly chewing gum as he had during Comer’s remarks.
“I don’t know what to read into it,” Girdler said. “I’m not sure who he was talking about. I’m just here to have a good time.”
When pressed about his relationship with Heiner, Girdler twice responded, “To my knowledge, nobody’s running for governor yet.”
To many in the crowd, Comer should be running.
Mike Chandler of Somerset, the general manager of a dairy farm Comer helped connect with Wal-Mart, said Comer is “truly for the people.”
“The guy’s integrity is unbelievable,” Chandler said. “I thought that might change, and it hasn’t. This is a guy who should be, and I hope will be, the next governor.”