James Comer says he’s ready to run for Kentucky governor if Matt Bevin backs out

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If Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin changes his mind and decides not to seek reelection, there’s at least one Republican candidate itching to take his place: U.S. Rep. James Comer.

Comer, R-Tompkinsville, who lost the 2015 Republican gubernatorial primary to Bevin by just 83 votes, said he’s been fielding phone calls and texts from Republicans in Kentucky who are worried that Bevin has yet to file the paperwork required to run — even though he pledged to run again last summer.

“I have no interest in running against an incumbent governor in a primary, so the ball’s in Bevin’s court,” Comer said. If Bevin doesn’t file, Comer said he’d have a “significant interest in the race.”

“I’m getting a lot of calls and I think people realize that the longer he waits, the smaller the window is for an average person to file for governor,” he said.

For months, Bevin has stalled on filing the paperwork necessary to run for governor, causing consternation among Republicans in Frankfort and speculation among Democrats. No one seems to have a firm grasp on the cause for the delay, which could be the result of a difficult search for a new running mate for lieutenant governor or an attempt to freeze out other contenders in favor of a preferred successor.

Last month, Bevin told Louisville radio host Terry Meiners that he still plans to run.

“I have said that I’m going to do that and it is my intention to do that,” Bevin said. “They don’t have to wait for me, anyone who wants to get in should get in.”

Comer suggested he’d move quickly should Bevin decide not to get in the race, noting that Kentucky law only requires two signatures on a candidate filing form.

“It’s not like it takes a long time to get ready,” he said.

Kentucky law also requires a gubernatorial candidate to name a running mate for lieutenant governor before they file their candidacy, a hurdle Comer says he would have no problem overcoming.

“I’ve had some conversations with some people,” he said. “I’m honored that a lot of quality people are calling to say they’d like to be my running mate.”

Comer, a close ally of U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, said a number of Republicans have encouraged him to consider a bid, but he insisted he was “really happy” in Washington.

The Democratic field is already starting to take shape just weeks before the January 29 filing deadline. Attorney General Andy Beshear, House Minority Floor Leader Rocky Adkins, and former state auditor Adam Edelen have all filed paperwork saying they intend to run. Former fighter pilot Amy McGrath has said she’ll sit out the race while Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes and Rep. Attica Scott (D-Louisville) are still officially undecided.

Comer said members of Kentucky’s congressional delegation were talking about the filing deadline — and Bevin — as they returned to Washington on Thursday for a new session of Congress.

“It’s 26, 25 days out,” Comer said of the deadline.

Bevin is heading to India later this month to lead a trip for the U.S. Department of Commerce and won’t return until January 21. Comer said that doesn’t give the average candidate very much time to decide if they want to enter the race.

“That’s a week before the filing deadline and the filing deadline is less than four months to the primary,” Comer said. “It’s 120 counties, it’s a big state, 12 TV markets. I think that if that scenario happens, there aren’t that very many people who can put a statewide campaign together in 100 days, which is what you’d have to do.”

Comer and Bevin have a notoriously rocky relationship. The congressman has been quick to criticize the governor during his term in Frankfort, particularly over Bevin’s failure to release his tax returns, and said he’s not talked with Bevin since the 2015 election.

“I know he comes to Washington as much as the average congressman, but for whatever reason he’s not reached out to me,” Comer said.

On Thursday, Comer took a jab at Bevin’s most recent political failure: the short-lived pre-Christmas special legislative session to attempt an overhaul of the state’s ailing pension systems. Comer blamed Bevin’s lack of communication with Republican lawmakers as a reason the special session flopped.

“He didn’t even call them and tell them he was going to have a special session,” Comer said. “As far as running for governor again, he hasn’t reached out to anyone in the Assembly.”

Comer said he’s also kept in touch with local elected officials who say they haven’t heard from Bevin.

“I love Frankfort, I love Kentucky, but I’m very blessed to be here,” he said. “I’m at peace either way.”

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Written by Lesley Clark and Daniel Desrochers. Cross-posted from the
Herald-Leader via the Kentucky Press News Service.