FRANKFORT — When Republican Agriculture Commissioner James Comer went to Republican U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers’ hometown to say, “The days of party bosses hand-picking candidates must end,” people noticed.
When former Rogers staffer and Republican state Sen. Chris Girdler responded with an op-ed in the Somerset Commonwealth Journal that Comer’s “baffling remarks” deepened existing wounds, people also noticed.
But they may not notice the spat is an example of prior grievances and complicated present alliances inside the Republican Party of Kentucky.
Rogers and Comer differ on the legalization of hemp, and there’s been scuttlebutt Rogers encouraged Louisville Metro Councilman Hal Heiner to run for governor against presumptive favorite Comer. Heiner and Rogers dismiss those rumors.
Others speculated Comer was also talking about U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, who has a history of inserting himself into other Republican campaigns. Rogers was believed to be interested in running for governor in 2003 but McConnell backed Ernie Fletcher. Then McConnell and Senate colleague Jim Bunning abandoned Fletcher for Anne Northup in 2007.
In 2010 McConnell pushed Bunning out of the Senate race and supported Trey Grayson against tea party upstart Rand Paul. When that didn’t work out McConnell moved into Paul’s corner, and they are now (uneasy?) allies, each coveting the other’s blessing to advance his own political aspirations.
As William Faulkner said: the past isn’t dead; it’s not even past. People remember. They choose sides.
McConnell faces his toughest re-election fight next year, his life-long goal of becoming Senate Majority Leader agonizingly within reach but not yet quite within his grasp. In the same election cycle, Republicans see a chance to gain control of the state House to go with the state Senate they already control. The following year, there’s an open governor’s seat. Comer garnered more votes than all other candidates, Democrat or Republican, in 2011, making him the presumed favorite in 2015. Then comes 2016 and Paul’s dreams of running for president.