PARIS — James Comer is working to beat Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor Sannie Overly. And he's not waiting until 2015 to start.
Comer, the Republican agriculture commissioner who is all but assured to be joining next year's gubernatorial race, has repeatedly said he is focused on helping Republicans retake the state House after almost a century of Democratic control. Then, he has said, he'll worry about his own run for the Governor's Mansion.
So a week before the May primary election, the evening sun shining before a light spring rain began to fall, Comer stood in the driveway outside the historic Barr House in Bourbon County, introducing himself to the few people who arrived for a fundraiser.
Waiting inside was Dwaine Curran, a two-time Iraq war veteran who is challenging Overly, the House Democratic Caucus chairwoman, in the race to represent the 72nd District, which covers a portion of northeastern Fayette County and all of Bath, Bourbon and Nicholas counties.
Curran has an uphill battle to unseat Overly, but he and Republicans supporting him think their odds increased May 6, when Attorney General Jack Conway announced he was running for governor with Overly as his running mate.
Upon hearing the news that Overly was Conway's pick, Comer told the Herald-Leader he "couldn't be happier about this announcement ... because we are working hard for Dwaine Curran, and this gives him a real shot."
Comer had agreed to join Curran at the fundraiser before he knew Overly was running for lieutenant governor. Since then, Comer's wife, Tamara Jo, and Republican House Minority Whip Bam Carney have done fundraisers for Curran.
While the issue dearest to him is ending abortion, Curran and Republicans around him see an avenue for victory by using Democratic Speaker of the House Greg Stumbo's words against Overly.
When Stumbo was asked in early March where the House stood on a bill that would have allowed U.S. Sen. Rand Paul to run for President and re-election to the Senate on the same ballot in 2016, he responded: "We kind of take the position over here that a man (who) can't decide which office he wants to run for isn't fit to hold either office."
Though he praises Paul in his remarks, Curran is echoing a similar sentiment as he endeavors to go from unknown to spoiler.
"You know with running two races, a lot of people feel somewhat betrayed," Curran told the Herald-Leader. "If you want to represent the 72nd, then do so. But if you don't, then move on."
A few minutes later, Comer joined in the fun.
"The people in this district want a representative focused on representing them in Frankfort and not enhancing their political career," Comer said.
Five months out from the November elections, Curran remains a long-shot to unseat Overly, who is seeking re-election to the House this year and the post of lieutenant governor in 2015. It also remains unclear if Republicans have fielded strong enough candidates in enough competitive districts to win control of the House for the first time since 1921.
What is clear is that by campaigning hard for House candidates, Comer is building on his base of support and already engaging in skirmishes with his potential Democratic rivals before he announces a run, let alone wins a primary against a field that already includes Louisville businessman Hal Heiner.
Heiner also is working behind the scenes to boost his profile among rank-and-file Republicans. This year he formed a political action committee called New Direction Kentucky, which "has the sole purpose of changing control of the House," said Heiner campaign manager Joe Burgan.
"Since then, Hal has worked tirelessly to raise funds and grow support for the effort, going so far as to postpone all gubernatorial fundraising events until after the November elections," Burgan said.
Curran applauded Comer for not getting in the governor's race yet, saying the commissioner has the "patience of a marine sniper." But Curran didn't leave any doubt about who he will be supporting for governor in 2015.
"I'm going to be like Babe Ruth and call the shot," Curran said. "Our next governor will have the initials J.C., but it won't be Jack Conway."
Conway, now quietly three weeks into his candidacy, came to his running mate's defense, calling Overly "a dedicated public servant who is passionate about representing the people of her district."
In an emailed statement, Overly said people in her district "know how to separate fact from fiction."
"I love Central Kentucky and its people," she said. "It's why I ran for the legislature and it's why I signed on to run on the governor's ticket with Attorney General Conway. I made it clear that my priority right now was the legislative elections and ensuring that Democrats hold the majority in the House."
Overly also had a campaign-style barb of her own for Comer.
"I am somewhat surprised by Commissioner Comer's remarks since he ran for agriculture commissioner while serving with me in the legislature," Overly said.