Comer supporters say abuse claims have energized voters for him as one state senator beats the withdrawal drum

05/13/2015 05:57 PM

FRANKFORT — About 25 backers of Republican gubernatorial candidate James Comer stood on the Capitol steps on Wednesday and reiterated their support for the ticket in light of abuse allegations raised against Comer by a college girlfriend.

“The reason we’re here today to show our support is because we know these gentlemen,” said Julie Denton, a member of the Louisville Metro Council and a former state senator. “We know these Kentuckians. We know that they are men of integrity, people of honor and of their word.”

Some in the crowd, made up of current and former GOP elected officials, expressed their confidence in Comer’s ability to make it through the primary despite accusations made by a former girlfriend, who has described an abusive, two-year relationship with Comer at Western Kentucky University, during which he drove her to a Louisville abortion clinic.

Her claims were first raised in a four-page letter to The Courier-Journal last week. Comer has vehemently denied the allegations.

Former U.S. Rep. Anne Northup, who endorsed Comer shortly after he announced his candidacy in September, said polling shows Comer “is the one that can best win in November” against likely Democratic nominee Jack Conway.

“It’s important as we choose our standard-bearer we choose somebody who has a strong organization and can put that organization to work,” she said.

Denton said Republican voters shouldn’t be concerned about the allegations against Comer.

Gesturing to the two dozen standing behind her, she said those in attendance have known the agriculture commissioner “for years and years.”

“There’s nothing to that,” Denton said of the abuse accusations leveled against Comer. “I knew about these allegations last summer and checked them out myself and found nothing, no substance to them whatsoever.

“And I am very disappointed that anybody would try to malign and demolish somebody personally for political gain. I think it’s diabolical and disgusting, and I’m very disappointed that there are folks out there who feel that’s the only way they can win political office.”

When asked to clarify whom she referenced, Denton referred to stories by The Lexington Herald-Leader and CNHI News.

The Lexington-Herald leader reported on communication between an anti-Comer blogger and the husband of GOP gubernatorial candidate Hal Heiner’s running mate April 29, and on Tuesday, CNHI News reported on the blogger’s involvement in the 73rd House District election in 2012. That’s the year Joe Burgan, Heiner’s former campaign manager who has worked with two outside spending groups airing ads against Comer and Louisville investment manager Matt Bevin, consulted for the House Republican caucus, according to CNHI.

“You can come to your own conclusions,” Denton said.

Burgan, in a phone interview with Pure Politics, dismissed Denton’s remarks as an attempt to deflect attention from the abuse allegations against Comer, who has “found himself in a very bad spot.”

“The reality is I helped the House caucus in 2012,” said Burgan, chairman of the super PAC Bluegrass Action Fund. “As I told (CNHI) I did not work with Mike Adams or know Mike Adams in 2012, and so there is no connection with myself and this gentleman in 2012, as much as they would like to draw some sort of parallel or place some blame.

“I didn’t know the gentleman in ’12. I didn’t go to Western Kentucky in the early ‘90s. I think this comes down to Commissioner Comer and Miss (Marilyn) Thomas, and that’s something that he has to work out with her and so we’re staying out of it.”

Heiner, in a gubernatorial debate on KET’s ‘Kentucky Tonight’ Monday, said his campaign had “no involvement whatsoever in the fact that this young lady felt the need to come forward.”

Northup acknowledged her prior relationship with Burgan, who said he worked on her congressional campaigns in 2004 and 2006 and her primary challenge of then-Gov. Ernie Fletcher in 2007.

“I would not hire Joe Burgan again,” Northup said.

Burgan said he appreciated his time working with Northup, who has his “utmost respect.”

“I think it’s unfortunate that Anne would let politics in the gubernatorial race ruin any relationship we’ve had in the past, but I have absolutely nothing bad to say about Anne Northup,” he said.

Speakers at Wednesday’s gathering said the abuse allegations have had little, if any impact on Comer’s support.

House Minority Floor Leader Jeff Hoover, in fact, says Comer backers in his south-central Kentucky backyard have been jolted to life by the accusations against their candidate of choice in the gubernatorial primary.

“This has re-energized, re-motivated, got people fired up even more than they were,” said Hoover, R-Jamestown, in an interview with Pure Politics after the event. “That’s what I’m seeing throughout south-central Kentucky. I think it’s been a bonus for him because people are more energized, more motivated, and they’re more committed to helping him get elected.”

When asked whether the allegations would affect Comer’s electability should he win the GOP primary, Hoover also pointed back to Tuesday’s Bluegrass Poll, which found Comer trailing Conway by 6 percent, the smallest margin among Republican candidates.

“His numbers have gone up, his support has increased, and that’s happening across the state and people know about these allegations,” he said.

But state Sen. Chris Girdler, a Somerset Republican and Heiner supporter, sees things shaping up differently in the GOP-heavy region.

Girdler, who called on Comer to exit the race in a report by The Courier-Journal on Monday, said Comer “should do the right thing and withdraw before he does further irreparable harm to himself, his family and the Republican Party of Kentucky.”

Girdler called Hoover a friend, “but obviously he and I are evidently living in two different worlds entirely.”

“I speak with hundreds of people weekly and the allegations coming from multiple sources of violence towards women and paying for abortions along with other actions by Jamie Comer have without question hurt his chances of being elected Governor and deservedly so,” Girdler said in an email to Pure Politics.

Thomas, in her letter, said Comer escorted her to an abortion clinic, but she did not accuse the candidate of paying for the procedure.

Girdler continued, “It is a very sad and tragic set of events for everyone involved, but who I feel most sorry for are women who are involved in violent relationships (and have numerous witnesses) and will now be timid and afraid of coming forward due to the way in which they are treated and labeled as exemplified in this situation. Violence towards women is a serious issue and we need real men to step up to the plate and do something about it.”

Kevin Wheatley

Kevin Wheatley is a reporter for Pure Politics. He joined cn|2 in September 2014 after five years at The State Journal in Frankfort, where he covered Kentucky government and politics. You can reach him at kevin.wheatley@charter.com or 502-792-1135 and follow him on Twitter at @KWheatley_cn2.

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