By Sam Youngman
BARDSTOWN — For a man who seems to spend his time either touring factories or raising money, U.S. Rep. Brett Guthrie is happy to sit and talk Kentucky politics until well after the check has come.
While keeping a full constituency outreach schedule, Guthrie, R-Bowling Green, has been burning up the fundraising trail over the last several weeks, telling the Lexington Herald-Leader over a pimento cheese sandwich and chili at Mammy’s Kitchen that he’s using the money to keep his political options open and grow his influence within the Republican Party.
After declaring he wouldn’t run for governor in 2015 despite a frenzy of rumors and a chat with U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Guthrie said he is not looking at any specific office in the future. Instead, he is paying his dues to the National Republican Campaign Committee, giving the most to the Republican Party of Kentucky and giving heavily to his fellow Republican House members for their re-election campaigns.
Guthrie’s politically charitable habits amount to the traditional road map that members of Congress follow to move from freshman members to subcommittee chairmen and maybe someday committee chair, growing influence within the party and Congress immeasurably.
Guthrie also is on the Energy and Commerce Committee and the Committee on Education and Workforce, forming the backbone of a 10-point proposed REBUILD Act he has been sharing with constituents and business leaders across his 2nd Congressional District that stretches from Bowling Green to part of Jessamine County.
While touting his proposal, which includes tax reform, repealing “Obamacare” and workforce training, Guthrie is also proud of the money he has raised and continues to raise for his fellow lawmakers, more than $600,000 to the state party, NRCC and other candidates not including $37,500 from his political action committee, BRETTPAC.
“If I’m going to stay in Washington, then I think I owe it to the people to become more influential so I can do the work,” Guthrie said, expressing an interest in a subcommittee chairmanship as he acknowledged he is “way down the path to a chairmanship of energy and commerce.”
Guthrie’s fundraising schedule in November ranged from dinners at Capital Grille to a yearly Florida Escape Weekend for BRETTPAC in South Beach.
With the end of the year fundraising deadline looming, Guthrie has about $1.2 million in cash, an overwhelming advantage over any Democrat hoping to unseat him next year.
Guthrie said he is waiting to gauge how much danger he faces in defending his own seat next year before making decisions about how much money and time he can give to other Republican House members.
But with Guthrie’s fundraising habits and a seat that is widely considered to be safe, the congressman can afford to help his party, raise his profile and keep an eye on the future, especially in a state where one of the U.S. senators is openly flirting with a presidential run.
Guthrie was candid about keeping an eye on whether U.S. Sen. Rand Paul decides to go ahead with a bid for the White House in 2016.
Paul has already said he plans to run for his Senate seat that same year regardless of whether he pursues the Republican nomination and the presidency, leaving Kentucky Republicans working overtime to try and reconcile that declaration with a Kentucky law that prohibits candidates from appearing on the same ballot twice.
Strategies and proposed solutions abound, but Guthrie knows that however it plays out, if Paul’s seat became open should he again shock the political world and win the White House, Guthrie would likely have access to significant funds to vie for the seat in whatever mind-bending scenario that came to pass.
But the congressman, who was adamant that he spends “more time speaking in schools and touring factories” than fundraising, said repeatedly he’s “not sitting around making a fundraising goal for some future office.”
“I mean I’ll give it a serious look,” Guthrie said. “But I’m not sitting in the House looking across the Capitol building saying, ‘Boy, it’s so much better over there.'”
Guthrie seemed to be a likely candidate for governor and was widely considered to go that way for much of the year until he ruled it out in July. The rumors caught McConnell’s attention at a fundraiser early this year, and the state’s senior U.S. senator suggested he and Guthrie talk about it back in Washington the next week.
The congressman said McConnell didn’t advise him for or against a run, the chat being more of a courtesy considering McConnell’s heavyweight role in the party and the abundance of rumors, and Guthrie told the senator he was considering a run.
“I said this is what I’m thinking and this is where we’re going, and he goes, ‘well, I think you’re really good in the House, you’ve got a good reputation in the House, you’re doing really good things in the House,” Guthrie said. “I said, ‘I didn’t mean to surprise you, but I haven’t been telling anybody I’m thinking about running for governor.”
“It’s hard” to sit out the race, the congressman said, calling being governor “the best job in government if you want to get stuff done.”
Guthrie has watched the early jockeying for the Republican nomination between former Louisville councilman Hal Heiner and Agriculture Commissioner James Comer, saying he’ll likely avoid endorsing either man, both of whom he says are “talented people.”
Guthrie isn’t staying neutral in next year’s Senate primary between McConnell and Louisville businessman Matt Bevin, saying “McConnell’s been great to me — I’m with him.”
It was McConnell and his team who alerted Guthrie that there might be a chance to run for the seat despite repeated assurances from then-U.S. Rep. Ron Lewis that he was running for re-election.
Guthrie emerged from the intense intraparty drama that followed an attempt by Lewis to make his chief of staff his successor, and he has since become a formidable candidate.
The congressman, whose district has significant Tea Party strength having birthed Paul’s Senate race, has successfully navigated taking votes that have angered Tea Party groups. Guthrie was not a part of the group of House Republicans that forced a stand-off with President Barack Obama and brought the federal government to a close at the end of September.
But Guthrie stays in contact with conservative groups in his district, attending their meetings and discussing the reasons for his votes.
The increasingly bitter Republican civil war, much of which is playing out in Kentucky, is lost on Guthrie, who said he struggles to appreciate the concept of not conservative enough.
“The argument over who’s conservative enough is about tactics,” Guthrie said. “You’re not conservative enough because this group sent out this message and said you have to vote this way to be in line with conservatives.”