Politics & Government

Despite rural roots, Comer plans big push to win Louisville Republicans in race for governor

James Comer, left, and Hal Heiner
James Comer, left, and Hal Heiner

Agriculture Commissioner James Comer won't launch his campaign for governor and announce a running mate until Sept. 9, but Comer has already begun solidifying support after declaring his intentions at the Fancy Farm picnic last weekend.

Comer, who lives in rural Tompkinsville, told the Herald-Leader Tuesday he plans to make a big play for Republicans in Louisville even though his only announced opponent — and two more potential rivals — hail from the state's largest city.

Comer's focus on Louisville might at first seem like a waste of time considering that Hal Heiner, the only announced Republican running, is a former Metro councilman and narrowly lost a mayoral bid to current Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer.

But on Monday, Comer spoke to a group of elected officials and business leaders at a meet-and-greet hosted by Republican consultant and lobbyist Riggs Lewis in Louisville, where both Lewis and state Sen. Julie Denton, whose district includes Heiner's home, endorsed Comer.

Lewis, who was spotted wearing a Team Comer sticker at the Graves County Republican breakfast on Saturday, said by text message Monday that even though he ran Heiner's Metro council race and recruited him to run for mayor, he is "fully supporting" Comer.

"Heiner was the best prepared to be Louisville mayor in 2010," Lewis said. "James Comer is the best prepared to lead Kentucky as governor in 2015."

Lewis, founder of the lobbying firm The Rotunda Group, said he still thinks highly of Heiner, and his decision to endorse Comer is not personal.

"Being governor requires statewide experience and proven leadership skills," Lewis said. "No one ever asked John Wall or Russ Smith to play center."

Heiner campaign manager Joe Burgan said Tuesday that "there will certainly be a long list of lobbyists and Frankfort insiders lining up to support a Frankfort establishment candidate."

"Hal will be focused on using his three decades of real world business experience to help make Kentucky economically competitive and to attract good paying jobs for Kentucky families," Burgan said.

He noted that Larry Cox, the former longtime state director for U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell who briefly held one of the Department of Agriculture's top jobs last year, is supporting Heiner.

Heiner, who announced his bid in February, has put $4.2 million of his own money into his campaign. Partisan polling has shown the former mayoral candidate well ahead of Comer in the Louisville area.

But Comer insisted Tuesday that he has an "unbelievable" amount of support in Jefferson County, which Democratic frontrunner Jack Conway also calls home.

"I'm going to make a strong push in Louisville both in the primary and the general election," Comer said.

An internal poll circulated late last week by Burgan showed a wide-open race statewide with a huge number of undecided voters. But Heiner held enormous leads in Louisville and the surrounding media market.

The poll, conducted by the GOP firm Fabrizio, Lee & Associates with a margin of error of 4.4 percentage points, showed Heiner leading Comer 42 percent to 19 percent in the Louisville media market and 61 percent to 10 percent in Louisville.

The questions and cross-tabs of the poll were not provided, nor were they provided in a poll released by Republican polling firm Public Opinion Strategies in March that showed Heiner leading Comer by 11 points in Louisville but swamping his opponent in the rest of the state.

In last week's Bluegrass Poll, both Comer and Heiner had relatively little name identification throughout the state, with low favorable and unfavorable ratings. In the Louisville region, Comer was viewed favorably by 13 percent of respondents and unfavorably by 8 percent while Heiner checked in at 23 percent favorable and 18 percent unfavorable.

"As I meet with Kentuckians from across our commonwealth, the overwhelming message I hear is that we need a governor with an outsider's perspective, someone who is concerned with growing and attracting high-quality jobs, not the political status quo," Heiner said in a statement. "I am gratified that so many have joined our campaign, and I look forward to building on this momentum during the next ten months."

Comer called Heiner's poll "baloney," joking that Heiner must have hired former U.S. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor's pollster. Cantor was beaten in his primary by an unknown challenger in an outcome that turned the political world on its ear.

Denton, who attended the meet-and-greet with Comer and Lewis Monday, told the Herald-Leader Tuesday that Comer has "a great story to tell" about his work at the agriculture department in the wake of scandal-plagued former commissioner Richie Farmer, who is now in federal prison.

She said the Monroe County Republican can make a legitimate play for the support of Louisville Republicans.

"I think he definitely has a shot," Denton said.

Former U.S. Ambassador to Latvia Cathy Bailey and former U.S. Senate candidate Matt Bevin, both of Louisville, have said they are considering joining the GOP primary for governor.

To battle Heiner's financial advantage, Comer said he plans to immediately begin an aggressive fundraising push, including a fundraiser in Glasgow a few hours after his Sept. 9 announcement in Tompkinsville.

Since Comer hasn't yet named a running mate and filed his paperwork to seek office, the commissioner said he will not mail invitations to the fundraiser. Instead, one of his supporters will invite the crowd at the official announcement, he said.

"I'll raise more money the first day I file for governor than he'll raise the entire campaign," said Comer, referring to Heiner.