It looks increasingly likely that Republican Hal Heiner will get some competition in the 2015 GOP primary for governor sooner rather than later.
James Comer, commissioner of the Department of Agriculture, said in a lengthy interview Wednesday that he plans to announce his intentions about running for governor during the week of the annual Fancy Farm picnic in late July and early August.
If he decides to run, Comer said, he would make the decision official and announce his running mate in his hometown of Tompkinsville in mid-September.
"I don't think there's any reason I would not run," Comer said. "My wife is very supportive. She is with me a lot when I travel the state, and she knows a lot of people are encouraging me to run. She knows I have a strong desire to lead this state."
Heiner, a former Louisville Metro councilman and mayoral candidate, has been in the race since early March. Comer has long insisted that he wouldn't enter the race before November, warning that to do so would distract from Republican efforts to win control of the state House in November for the first time in nearly a century.
Comer said Wednesday that his change of mind has nothing to do with Heiner's entrance into the race, his early television advertising or the widespread expectation that Heiner plans to spend millions of his own dollars.
Instead, the commissioner said, he has been encouraged by House Republicans and others around the state to expedite his entry because Attorney General Jack Conway has moved with force since entering the race in early May to consolidate Democratic support.
After State Auditor Adam Edelen announced late last month that he wouldn't run, Conway announced the endorsements of former U.S. Sen. Wendell Ford, former State Auditor Crit Luallen and U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth. A number of other Democrats are considering a bid, but Comer said Republicans are increasingly concerned that Conway will skate through the Democratic primary, waiting rested, unscathed and well-financed for the Republican nominee.
"They see the Democrats uniting behind Conway," Comer said. "If I get in the race in September, it's because the Democrats are uniting around Conway. It doesn't have anything to do with the Republican candidate."
Joe Burgan, Heiner's campaign manager, said Wednesday that Heiner is "not surprised that Jamie's political ambitions have caused him to go back on his numerous statements that it would be selfish to enter the governor's race before November."
"As is often the case with career politicians, political expediency wins out at the end of the day," Burgan said. "Ambition does not equal leadership. We all know Jamie wants to be governor, but why? What experience, outside of being a professional politician, would he bring to the job? People are tired of politicians whose primary focus is their own political advancement, and not the advancement of Kentucky."
Comer downplayed the possibility that his entrance into the race would hurt the fundraising efforts of Republican House candidates. By mid-September, Comer said, those candidates will have raised most of the money they're going to accumulate and will have shifted their attention to spending money and getting out the vote.
"If they haven't raised their money for their House races by the last 60 days, then they're probably not going to raise it," he said. "So they said that by mid-September, they will have already raised 99 percent of the money that they're going to raise."
Even with an earlier-than-expected entry, Comer said, GOP House candidates have repeatedly thanked him for waiting to make an announcement.
"They all appreciate that I've not been soliciting money in their districts, that I've not been sending weekly emails requesting money and that I'm not advertising on TV, taking away from their campaigns," Comer said. "So I think that my patience and my focus on their campaigns will serve me well should I decide to run."
Allies of Heiner, however, contend that any criticism of his early entry into the race is unfair, that Heiner started a Super PAC on behalf of House candidates and that he has limited his own fundraising efforts.
"Hal will continue working to flip the House through his PAC, New Direction Kentucky, and he will not hold a campaign fundraiser until after the November elections," Burgan said. "He has made those commitments, and he will stick by them."
Despite the early tussling, Comer said he's confident that he has a broad base of support around the state. That support, he said, will trump whatever amount of money Heiner puts in the race.
"I'm not going to sit here and say I'll have the most money, because by all accounts this guy is going to put in an enormous amount of money, and he has every right to do that. But we've got a lot of support out there," Comer said. "You can't buy the governor's office."
He said many Republicans think Heiner is "a nice man" with "a good message in some areas."
"But he reminds them of nine out of the last 10 candidates that we've nominated for governor in Kentucky, and those 9 out of 10 candidates all lost," Comer said. "Not because we had candidates with a bad message. We nominated candidates that weren't good messengers, that didn't relate to average Kentuckians."
Burgan was quick to disagree, saying that "Jamie Comer is the wrong messenger because he doesn't have a message."
"He spent most of his adult life as a professional politician in Frankfort," Burgan said.
Comer rejects that label, despite spending more than a decade as a state representative and more than two years as commissioner.
In both capacities, Comer said, he has "set the example for what good Republican leadership should look like," reforming his agency after former commissioner Richie Farmer was sent to prison for using public resources for personal gain.
"If I choose to run for governor, I'm going to run on what I've achieved at the Department of Agriculture," he said. "I think we've got a great story to tell in the department."
While Heiner waits, Comer said he is eager to face off against Conway in a general election.
"We disagree on everything," Comer said. "We are daylight and dark on every issue, whether it be economic or social."