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June 2012
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Heiner hits the ball into Comer's court


Hal Heiner is starting the 2015 Republican race for governor by formally announcing his candidacy with K.C. Crosbie as his running mate. How will the GOP frontrunner, Agriculture Commissioner James Comer, respond?

Heiner is a wealthy businessman, a former Louisville councilman, and unsuccessful candidate for mayor. Crosbie is a former Lexington council member, an unsuccessful candidate for state treasurer, and Kentucky's current national Republican committeewoman.

Their ticket has four big positives. Its base is in the state's two largest cities; it is gender-balanced; it will be well-funded; and it can run as outsiders against Frankfort.

The Heiner-Crosbie team is urban. Jefferson County has 176,063 registered Republicans. Fayette County has 74,599. Coming from the two counties with the most Republican voters is helpful, but the rest of the state has 935,727 Republicans.

Having a female running mate will help Heiner. Women are key to Kentucky's GOP.

Heiner can self-fund his campaign, but Crosbie's connections can help raise outside money. Overcoming his lack of statewide name recognition will be a big challenge, but starting early and spending liberally will help.

Neither Heiner nor Crosbie is part of the proverbial "mess in Frankfort." They can run as fresh faces with bold new ideas to jolt Kentucky out of mediocrity and into the ranks of business-friendly innovative states.

Comer leads 42-14 in a recent poll. The nomination seemed his for the having until Heiner appeared at the Fancy Farm picnic last summer. Since then the affable Comer has been somewhat snippy toward Heiner, Republican Fifth District U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, and even Republican U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell.

But the Tompkinsville farmer and former state representative is a proven vote-getter and extremely talented politician as his big 2011 win and success in promoting industrial hemp have demonstrated. Beating him will be a tall order, and outside the Heiner camp relatively few Republicans really believe it can be done.

Comer comes from the vote-rich Republican region known as the "old Fifth District" dating back to a time when Kentucky had more congressional seats. His rupture with Rep. Rogers notwithstanding, he is strong there, but his popularity extends westward to the newer Republican bastions in the Second and First Districts.

There is considerable support for Comer in the soon-to-be Republican majority in the state House of Representatives. He has expanded on this statewide base by doing a darned good job in his current position as chief of Kentucky's diverse and growing agricultural community.

Comer has said that starting next year's governor's race before this year's elections are over would be selfish and bad for the party. But he may not have any choice now that Heiner is moving full steam ahead.

Under Kentucky's ill-conceived campaign law candidates must tap a running mate before really campaigning or raising money. State Sen. Damon Thayer of Georgetown long seemed a likely Comer option, but he is a lightning rod for controversy, most recently by watering down a Comer-backed measure to restore felons' voting rights.

Thayer might bring in some horse industry money, but pro-casino Comer may get that anyway. Instead, Comer may seek a running mate to counter Heiner's advantages.

Cathy Bailey is a woman who could really help Comer. A Louisvillian who could cut into Heiner's base, Bailey has money and raises it as well as anyone in the commonwealth. Both she and Comer are considered close to Kentucky's popular Republican U.S. Sen. Rand Paul.

But Bailey is apparently considering the gubernatorial race herself, although she almost certainly cannot win it. Bailey might also, albeit wrongly, consider the second spot beneath her stature as a former U.S. Ambassador to Latvia under former President George W. Bush.

Former state Republican Party of Kentucky chairwoman Ellen Williams of Lawrenceburg would boost Comer, too. Williams, now a lobbyist, is by far the best state Republican when it comes to television communication. She is well known across the state and offers everything that Crosbie does except having run for elective public office before.

There are also some women from heavily Republican Northern Kentucky who would make good lieutenant governor candidates. However, most are Frankfort veterans like Comer and others are backing Heiner.

With a big lead, Comer could try to lay back. He can continue using his job as agriculture commissioner to wage a de facto campaign as he has been since he assumed that office.

But watching Heiner openly campaign, raise money, and spend money will make waiting difficult for Comer. Holding off will be even harder if any Democrats decide that ceding the gubernatorial field to Heiner for several months simply does not make political sense.

So Comer has the lead, but Heiner has the initiative. Can Heiner capitalize on it and catch up a bit before Comer responds? It is going to get fun fast.

John David Dyche is a Louisville attorney and a political commentator for WDRB.com.

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