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.
Guthrie said that Comer was buoyed by the fact that “the farming community and the ag community got behind Comer pretty strongly, regardless of party.”
Comer also was helped by the fact that his opponent was laughable — literally.
Farmer “makes a living doing a comedy routine in which he makes fun of rural Kentucky — and he ran for ag commissioner, which is like the office that represents rural Kentuckians!” a Kentucky GOP consultant said.
Farmer, who is not a farmer but a humorist and marketing professional, had the bad luck of finding that one of his routines was on video.
“You know how come the FBI won’t do any work down in this county? Why? Because the DNA’s all alike and there ain’t no dental records there,” Farmer said in his routine.
“The Farmer guy did himself in,” Kentucky Democratic consultant Jim Cauley said.
“I’m from the hills of eastern Kentucky and, hell,” he said dismissively, “I’ll be honest with you, I didn’t vote for that guy.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., carries a musket on stage as he speaks during the American Conservative Union's Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at National Harbor, Md., on Thursday March 6, 2014.