LOUISVILLE — With a heavy fog obscuring the picturesque view of the Ohio River behind him, James Comer was wrapping up his remarks Tuesday night to a roomful of influential Louisville business leaders.
"When we win this election ..." Comer started, and then CRASH.
Someone in the crowd dropped his bourbon, the shattering highball glass drawing gasps, then laughter from the crowd and interrupting the conclusion of Comer's remarks.
For Comer, who for most of the last nine months was considered the frontrunner for the Republican gubernatorial nomination, it was just that kind of day.
Never miss a local story.
About 45 minutes before Comer's remarks began, the latest Bluegrass Poll was released showing the state commissioner of agriculture trailing former Louisville councilman Hal Heiner by 8 points and tied with Louisville businessman Matt Bevin, who lost a primary challenge to U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell last spring.
Hours before that, Comer's campaign faced a minor embarrassment when the PageOneKentucky blog revealed that the parents and brother of Holly Harris Von Luehrte, Comer's former campaign manager, were hosting a fundraiser for Heiner.
Comer's campaign has taken on some water in the last week, but the Kentucky agriculture commissioner and those around him say they're confident the May 19 primary is still theirs to lose, thanks in part to friends in high places and a long-standing statewide organization.
For example, there's the man whose living room Comer was standing in when that glass fell and broke.
Turns out, there was plenty of bourbon on hand to replace that one because the fundraiser was hosted by none other than Mac Brown, vice president of Louisville's Brown-Forman, along with Lexingtonian Nate Morris, a top ally of U.S. Sen. Rand Paul's and co-founder of Rubicon Global.
A bourbon of his own in hand, Brown introduced Morris and Comer to the crowd of wealthy business leaders, telling them that more than one candidate had come asking for his endorsement. He likes Heiner, Brown said, but he came to believe that Comer and Heiner are "basically going to be in the same place on all the key issues, all the good Republican issues."
"So to me it was a matter of who could be elected and who was going to govern," Brown said. "And as I sat down ... I really felt that Jamie really has the ability to attract a broader base."
While the Heiner campaign would point to the Bluegrass Poll as evidence to dispute Brown's conclusion, a number of other well-known Kentucky business leaders believe as Brown does, opening their wallets to someone they think can win — and govern — by attracting conservative Democrats.
The night before he stood in Brown's living room, Comer attended a fundraiser for his campaign at the Corbin home of prominent banker Terry Forcht. This week, Comer will attend fundraisers in Bowling Green with the bigwigs at Houchens Industries and in Lexington with coal magnate Joe Craft and his fiancée, Kelly Knight, a GOP fundraiser and ambassador to the United Nations under former President George W. Bush. After that, he'll be in Washington, D.C., for a fundraiser hosted by U.S. Rep. Ed Whitfield.
The trend is pretty clear: Comer might be the blue-collar candidate, but he has a whole lot of white-collar help.
And he needs it to overcome Heiner's deep pockets.
The Heiner campaign, seizing on the Bluegrass Poll, is exuberant, confident that the millions of dollars it has spent on television ads and the candidate's countless miles of travel have combined to give Heiner a lead.
The race has "fundamentally changed" in Heiner's direction, according to a campaign memo distributed by Heiner's new press secretary, Greg Blair, who joined Heiner after working for Florida Gov. Rick Scott's successful re-election bid last year. (Heiner has been amassing some of the finest Republican campaign talent money can buy, while Comer is running with a skeleton staff.)
"Make no mistake: Hal Heiner has claimed significant momentum in the race for governor," the memo read.
Having already put $4.2 million of his own money in the race last year, Heiner is spending freely on television and appears willing to spend more. Without directly referencing Heiner's sizable, self-funded war chest, the campaign said "Heiner is in the best position to take advantage of this momentum shift."
"This week, the Heiner campaign started airing broadcast television ads in the Charleston-Huntington, Evansville and Paducah media markets — areas that are not traditionally targeted with paid media efforts in a primary campaign," the memo read. "Hal Heiner is the only candidate on television in any of those markets."
Meanwhile, it's unclear whether Bevin has room to grow beyond his current polling position, given that he is already well-known among Republican primary voters. A fourth candidate, former state Supreme Court Justice Will T. Scott, has so far failed to gain traction, placing a distant last in all public and private polling of the race.
Scott has struggled to build on his relatively small base of support in Eastern Kentucky, and he has not made fundraising a priority. But jumping out of an airplane — as the 67-year-old Scott plans to do Monday — will likely attract some much-needed attention to his campaign.
Bevin's campaign insists he is in the best position to win, dismissing the latest polling by noting that Bevin was the last person to enter the race and claiming that Bevin is the only candidate in the race to offer a detailed plan, a notion disputed by Scott's campaign.
"This far out from the primary, and considering Matt has only been a candidate for governor for just over a month, the Bevin-Hampton ticket is on firm ground and poised to be successful in both the primary and in November," said Ben Hartman, Bevin's campaign manager. "When Matt's 'Blueprint for a Better Kentucky' is shared with voters all across the commonwealth, voters will support the Bevin-Hampton ticket."
For Comer to right what looks to be a listing ship, he's going to need more money for television advertising. A lot more.
Almost immediately after he announced his candidacy in his hometown of Tompkinsville last September, Comer hit the fundraising circuit hard, hoping to build a war chest of his own before Heiner became a household name.
He has had significant success, raising $540,000 in his first three weeks in the race and almost $1.1 million by the end of the year. This year, he has had big hauls in unlikely places, recently raising $125,000 in Paducah.
After calculating that he could no longer afford to concede the airwaves to Heiner, Comer launched two television ads in the last three weeks — the second began running last week and features Comer saying the state should strive to be number one "just like our basketball teams" — but they were both aired sparingly.
As he barnstorms the fundraising circuit, Comer is telling donors he's following the strategy of U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell: "We've been working hard, building an organization, raising money."
"I have not spent any money," Comer told the crowd at Brown's house, joking about his well-known frugality.
Unless the Bluegrass Poll freezes some checkbooks, which is a legitimate concern for Comer, the campaign plans to step up advertising significantly at the start of April and achieve something close to financial parity for the last leg of the race.
"We're going to start spending that money in the last 60 days of this campaign," Comer said. "And the last 30 days we'll match any candidate dollar for dollar in this race."
On Thursday night, Comer held an event for more than 100 young professionals at Lexington's Jefferson Davis Inn. As he closed his remarks, Comer acknowledged the latest poll, telling the crowd "there are going to be good stories, and there are going to be bad stories."
"But we're going to work together," he said. "This campaign's different because we have an organization. I'm honored to work with you and this organization to be able to win this election."
Nobody dropped a drink.