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McConnell’s Aid Equals Downballot Win

Bill Clark/Roll Call
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell lent his expertise to a Kentucky agriculture commissioner candidate, James Comer, who won the statewide office Tuesday night.

James Comer became the most unusual kind of Kentucky Republican on Tuesday night: a winner.

The agriculture commissioner-elect took 64 percent of the vote while five other statewide Republican candidates, including the GOP gubernatorial nominee, were defeated by margins that ranged from respectable to downright embarrassing.

Comer’s victory wasn’t a fluke.

Soon after the little-known state Representative won the GOP primary, he reached out to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and requested guidance. Comer got it.

The godfather of Kentucky politics played a discreet, but key, role in helping Comer become a statewide officeholder and buck a strongly anti-Republican trend in the Bluegrass State on Tuesday night.

“The takeaway is that campaigns and candidates matter. Jamie ran a very, very smart campaign,” said Billy Piper, McConnell’s former chief of staff. “McConnell has a history of being involved in races back home, but only when asked. And Jamie asked.”

He also listened.

State political observers said Comer was a talented candidate who was thoughtful about how he spent his war chest, taking McConnell’s advice to wait until the end of the campaign to go on TV with a big advertising buy across the state.

Comer, a farmer, raised more than $500,000 for the general election. Members of the Kentucky delegation, including Rep. Brett Guthrie (R) and McConnell, helped him fundraise. 

Comer had a potent negative TV spot hitting his opponent, Bob Farmer. It was coupled with a separate biographical ad introducing himself to voters.

It didn’t hurt to have veteran GOP ad-maker Larry McCarthy making the spots.

“It was a downballot race, which don’t get a lot of attention from voters until the very end, so we just chose to save every penny until the last days and then put [the ads] up,” McCarthy said. “It was very effective.”

McCarthy said he worked with Comer at the request of McConnell.

Unlike some of the other GOP candidates on the ballot, Comer, 39, did not attempt to nationalize the race or leverage the deep unpopularity of the president in the state.

“I never once mentioned Barack Obama’s name,” Comer told Roll Call. “I never mentioned [Democratic Gov.] Steve Beshear’s name one time. ... The message I had was very different than the rest of the Republican ticket.”

He focused on his policy positions and the contrast between him and his opponent, who didn’t have agriculture experience.

Comer, who said he spoke with McConnell’s state director every day, ended with more votes than any other official on the ballot, including Beshear. And he outperformed the top of the Republican ticket, the GOP gubernatorial candidate, by 29 points.

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