Editor's note: This is the third of four profiles of Kentucky's Republican candidates for governor.
Thirty years ago, Eddie Proffitt and Sam Comer were headed home to Monroe County with their sons from a cattle sale in Missouri, probably talking farming and politics, when Jamie Comer blurted out he'd love to be state agriculture commissioner someday, Proffitt said.
Comer, who was in the 7th or 8th grade at the time, fulfilled that dream in 2011, winning the office with the highest vote total of any candidate for statewide office in the November general election.
"Jamie always when he set a goal, seemed like he achieved it," said Proffitt, a real estate agent and auctioneer in Monroe County.
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Now, however, Comer is in a tougher race, for the Republican nomination for governor.
One rival, Louisville businessman Hal Heiner, has outspent Comer by a wide margin and benefits from advertising by an outside organization that has criticized Comer. Another, Louisville investment manager Matt Bevin, threatens to cut into Comer's support among libertarians. The fourth candidate in the race, former Supreme Court Justice Will T. Scott, has been far back in the polls but is well-known in rural Eastern Kentucky.
The three leading candidates have been slamming each other over their records and claims as the May 19 election looms, but Comer said that his campaign has plenty of money to reach voters through ads over the final weeks of the campaign, and that he has a superior network of volunteers on the ground that will carry the day.
Comer, a former state representative, said he alone would be able to work with both sides of the aisle to tackle changes needed in Kentucky.
"When you have gridlock in Frankfort the way we do, you have to have the confidence of both sides to be able to bring everyone together to pass a bold agenda," Comer said. "I'm the only one running, Republican or Democrat, that can work in a bipartisan way with the legislature."
'Vision for politics'
Comer grew up in Monroe County, a staunchly Republican, socially and fiscally conservative farming county where a large copy of the Ten Commandments hangs in the main hall of the courthouse.
Comer's grandfather Harlin Comer was a two-time delegate to the GOP national convention, and his father served on the county school board.
James Comer developed an interest in current events and politics early and was elected president of state Future Farmers of America organization for the 1990-1991 term.
"He's always had a vision for politics ... a vision of being a leader," said Amy W. Thompson, a friend who graduated from high school with Comer and is now superintendent of Monroe County schools.
Comer completed a degree in agriculture at Western Kentucky University in December 1993 and returned home to Tompkinsville, where he farmed and served terms as president of the county Republican Party and the chamber of commerce.
Comer also was briefly involved in an insurance agency and companies that had restaurant franchises, and was a director at South Central Bank in Tompkinsville for more than a decade.
In his first campaign for the legislature, an organization called Kentucky First said Comer was among the most pro-business candidates of more than 100 interviewed around Kentucky.
In his 2014 state financial disclosure, Comer listed his business interests as James Comer Jr. Farms, Comer Land & Cattle and a stake in Republic Bank.
Comer said he, his father and brother have a 2,000-acre farm operation that includes cattle, corn and soybean production.
A nonprofit group supporting Heiner, Citizens for a Sound Government, has run ads implying Comer is a hypocrite because he is calling for an end to federal farm subsidies, but received more than $87,000 in subsidies from 1995 through 2012.
Comer responded that Heiner received more subsidy money per acre on a small farm than Comer did.
Comer said Heiner is the perfect example of why he favors ending subsidies, because "it always ends up that the rich guys that never do any work farmin' are the ones that end up with all the subsidies."
Comer's first run for public office, in 2000, was for the 53rd House District seat covering Monroe, Cumberland, Metcalfe and Green counties. He defeated the wife of incumbent Billy D. Polston, who ran after Polston skipped the race because of health problems.
Comer was smart, conscientious and well-liked, and other GOP members quickly began looking to him for guidance, said state Rep. Jeff Hoover of Jamestown, who has been in House Republican leadership for 15 years and is the minority leader.
"He worked really hard to understand the issues," Hoover said. "He got a lot of respect from our members."
The National Republican Legislators Association named Comer the top freshman state lawmaker in the nation his first term, but one particular vote has come back to bite him in the race for governor.
The 2005 measure, dubbed the "greed bill," boosted legislative pensions.
A 2012 report by the Bluegrass Institute, which describes itself as a free-market think tank, said Comer's pension would nearly triple under the bill because of a provision allowing lawmakers to count higher salaries from other state agencies in calculating legislative retirement.
Citizens for a Sound Government, which reportedly has ties to the billionaire Koch brothers, has hit Comer hard on the issue, saying he voted to line his pockets despite a gaping pension shortfall.
Comer fumbled in answering a question about the bill at one point, stammering for a response before finally saying his vote was "clearly a bad vote."
Comer told the Herald-Leader he and many other legislators did not know the effect of the bill when they voted for it.
He said that if elected governor, he will push a proposal to abolish legislative pensions and allow people who have already qualified to give them up, and would opt out himself.
Comer rode widespread support from farmers and backing by Tea Party sympathizers to win the agriculture commissioner's race — the only Republican to win a statewide office in 2011.
On the campaign trail this year, he reminds crowds that he tallied far more votes in that election than Attorney General Jack Conway, the favorite to win the Democratic nomination for governor this month.
Comer took over an office where problems had festered under his Republican predecessor, University of Kentucky basketball icon Richie Farmer.
Comer called for an examination by state Auditor Adam Edelen's office, which found that Farmer took guns and other items bought with state money; had state workers build a basketball court at his house and mow his yard; put his girlfriend on the payroll; and employed other friends and supporters who did little work.
The FBI began investigating, and a federal grand jury indicted Farmer in 2013. He pleaded guilty to misappropriating government resources and was sentenced to 27 months in prison.
Comer cleaned house at his department, firing a number of people.
There is some fallout in the current campaign as a result. Some Farmer supporters felt Comer went after the onetime UK star harder than necessary in order to score points for himself, and some of the people Comer fired had ties to wealthy or influential people.
"It's created some friction in certain parts of the state," Comer said.
However, there are more people who appreciate that he did the right thing, according to Comer and his supporters.
"He had the political courage to go over there and do that," said state Rep. Tommy Turner, a Republican from Pulaski County.
Comer said he increased efficiency at the Department of Agriculture.
For instance, it took three years under Farmer to get all the gas pumps in the state inspected, but his employees did the job in just over three months last year, Comer said.
He also pulled the plug on a wasteful fuel-testing lab and returned $1.6 million to the treasury.
Under Comer, the department started a program to promote veterans who farm, called Homegrown by Heroes, which has since spread across the nation; expanded the Kentucky Proud branding program for agricultural goods and created a new brand for products from Eastern Kentucky; set up a branding program for Kentucky milk; and started an effort to link farmers with college markets.
Comer also pushed efforts to legalize production of industrial hemp as a potential cash crop for Kentucky farmers, and his office sued federal officials after they held up a shipment of seeds needed for the first crop in 2014.
"Everything that the next governor needs to do, I've done on a smaller scale in this office," Comer said. "I've fought corruption. I've made government more efficient. I've focused on trying to recruit new industries and good-paying jobs to this state. I've passed legislation."
Mark Haney, president of the Kentucky Farm Bureau Federation, said that while the organization does not make political endorsements, Comer is highly regarded in the state's agriculture sector.
"I think the commissioner has done an outstanding job," Haney said.
On the political front, Comer has bucked others in the Republican Party at times, creating rifts that are clear in the race.
In 2007, he endorsed former U.S. Rep. Anne Northup in the GOP primary over Gov. Ernie Fletcher, who was seeking a second term but had been wounded by an investigation and charges of hiring violations in his administration.
Fletcher won the nomination but lost to Steve Beshear in the general election. This year, many prominent members of Fletcher's administration are supporting Heiner.
Comer said Fletcher is a good man but has been critical of some former officials Comer said cost Fletcher the office.
In 2010, Comer was one of the only Republican House members to back Tea Party star Rand Paul in his successful U.S. Senate race against then-Secretary of State Trey Grayson, who had the support of U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, 5th District U.S. Rep Hal Rogers and other establishment Republicans.
In November 2013, Comer gave a speech to the Somerset-Pulaski County Chamber of Commerce in which he warned against "party bosses hand-picking elected officials in smoke-filled rooms."
"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," Comer told the crowd.
Comer said he gave the hardball speech because state Sen. Chris Girdler, a Somerset Republican who had earlier worked for Rogers, was introducing Heiner to people and saying McConnell, Rogers and others were supporting Heiner when that was not the case.
"I wanted to make it clear that I couldn't be controlled," Comer said.
Girdler said he had not introduced Heiner to anyone before Comer's speech or said Heiner was Rogers' choice.
Politicizing the chamber speech showed Comer's paranoia, said Girdler, who supports Heiner.
"It shows that he does not have the maturity and he does not have the steady hand to be CEO of Kentucky," Girdler said.
Comer has trailed Heiner in public polling, but he points to fundraising as a true measure of the candidates' support.
Comer received three times as much in itemized donations as Bevin and Heiner combined from Jan. 1 through mid-April, state reports show.
Farmers and agriculture-related businesses made up a significant bloc of Comer's donations, but coal and banking interests also were notable.
Comer won't be able to outspend Heiner, who has put more than $4 million of his own money into his campaign, but Comer had $1 million left for the final weeks of the campaign.
That will be enough to compete in the advertising war at the right time, when voters finally focus on the race after the Kentucky Derby, Comer said.
An outside group also is buying ads to help Comer.
And Comer and his supporters believe he has a better network of courthouse officials and committed volunteers on the ground to get out his vote, which they argue will make the difference in a low-turnout election.
"I have never seen a Republican candidate for governor have a better organized ground game across the state than Jamie does," Hoover said.
With turnout as low as 15 percent, 65,000 votes could win the race, Comer said.
"I can show you where we're gonna get 65,000 votes," he said. "We'll peak at the right time."