Hindsight 20/20 in wake of 83-vote loss for Comer while link to controversy, Bevin’s bid hurt Heiner, observers say

05/21/2015 01:05 PM

When a statewide race unofficially comes down to 83 votes, pinpointing the exact cause of the second-place finisher’s electoral shortcomings is an exercise in futility.

That’s especially true in the case of Agriculture Commissioner James Comer.

Republican analysts pointed to Comer’s light political activity in Jefferson County, the “Fort Sumter” speech he gave in the backyard of U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers in late 2013 and allegations, which he has categorically denied, of abusing a college girlfriend and escorting her to an abortion clinic as factors in his unofficial narrow defeat at the hands of Louisville investment manager Matt Bevin.

Virtually all of Comer’s campaign decisions can be dissected and second-guessed ad nauseam, said Republican strategist Scott Jennings.

“We decided not to run ads in this market,” he said, noting Comer’s campaign and his supportive super PAC did not air spots in the northern Kentucky market with state Sen. Chris McDaniel of Taylor Mill on the ticket. “We decided to drop this piece of mail instead of that one. The allegations. We decided not to hold a campaign here and instead there. I mean, you could really look at any one macro or micro event or decision and say, ‘Well, there’s the ball game.’”

A candidate coming off an 83-vote loss can “have an endless discussion with yourself and drive yourself crazy if you’re Jamie Comer,” Jennings added, pointing to Bevin’s wins in Daviess and Ohio counties. “You know, what if this, what if that. Hindsight’s 20/20 in almost every case.”

And despite pumping at least $4.2 million of his personal wealth in the campaign, Hal Heiner, who placed third and trailed Comer by 12,448 votes, found himself harmed by his running mate’s husband’s contact with a controversial anti-Comer blogger as well as Bevin’s victories in the counties surrounding Jefferson, analysts said.

GOP consultant Ted Jackson, who supported Comer in the campaign, offered a more blunt criticism of the former Louisville Metro councilman’s candidacy.

“It’s so tempting to look at that and draw these big conclusions about what the impact of the controversy had and (Heiner) taking that up at the 11th hour, and all those are relevant things as it relates to the ultimate outcome,” Jackson said.

“But I think to me the first thing is that Hal Heiner — the good person that he is, no doubt —he is not a good candidate, and he never caught fire.”

Comer has requested a recanvass, but if the results hold, he’ll have plenty to ponder after a furious electoral comeback in western Kentucky fell just short of netting him the GOP nomination.

While he said determining the impact of abuse allegations against Comer played across the state would be “impossible,” the negative press may have hurt the candidate more acutely in the Louisville media market, Jennings said.

Comer won 16.3 percent of the vote in Jefferson, Oldham, Hardin, Meade, Bullitt, Nelson, Spencer, Shelby, Trimble and Henry counties.

“I think on the allegation front what you’ll really never know is if there were just a handful of undecided people out there and they look at the allegation story and said, ‘Eh, I just don’t know about this.’ Was it enough to be part of that 83-vote losing margin?” Jennings said.

“On the flip side, you could look at the fact that the story was principally driven in the Louisville media market. … From a macro-polling perspective, you could probably make the argument that it didn’t hurt him, but if you start looking county-by-county and principally at Jefferson, where he got 12 percent of the vote, I think you could also make a counter-argument that in that one county where the story was really probably most injected in the political bloodstream, he drastically underperformed.”

At the same time, Comer’s attempts to link Heiner’s campaign with the blogger responsible for identifying the alleged victim may have damaged the Louisvillians’ image with voters throughout the state, Jennings said.

“I think you could make a credible argument that the kind of campaign Heiner was running, the clean, outside, positive, policy-driven, Christian businessman, how badly was his image shattered by the idea that he was behind the digging up of this dirt on Jamie Comer?” he said.

“I think there’s no question that you could draw a line between Heiner’s image probably degrading in the last month and the fact that he finished in third place, so I would say you could make a very, very real argument that the allegation sort of blew up both Heiner and Comer,” he added.

While Heiner performed well in Jefferson County, grabbing 50.7 percent of the 35,097 votes there, Bevin carried the outlying counties of Oldham, Hardin, Meade, Bullitt, Nelson, Spencer, Shelby, Trimble and Henry with 40.9 percent of the 21,658 ballots cast.

“I think Bevin hurting Heiner out of the Louisville (designated market area), that was sort of the death blow to Heiner’s chances,” Jennings said.

Comer should have campaigned more aggressively in Jefferson County, particularly given his endorsement by former U.S. Rep. Anne Northup, said Jackson.

Although the pro-Comer super PAC Kentuckians for Growth, Opportunity and Prosperity had been on Jefferson County airwaves since early April, his campaign did not begin airing television ads in the Louisville market until about two weeks before Tuesday’s primary, according to filings with the Federal Communications Commission.

“This was an opportunity not to beat Hal in Jefferson County, but if Jamie had come in here and campaigned with Anne Northup in Jefferson County, he’d have won this election,” Jackson said.

The Republican agriculture commissioner’s so-called “Fort Sumter” speech before the Pulaski County Chamber of Commerce in November 2013, in which he eschewed “party bosses” who tried to manipulate this year’s GOP primary, also lost him some supporters in the 5th Congressional District, said Grayson Smith, a former aide to Comer and Rogers and a Heiner supporter.

Comer still won the 30 counties within the district with 33 percent of the 41,526 ballots cast there to Heiner’s 29.8 percent and Bevin’s 23.8 percent, but Smith wondered if Comer would have found another 83 votes in the area had he simply given a standard stump speech that day rather than take the political warpath, which some saw as an affront to Rogers.

“One of the things Jamie tried to do in that speech was say that no one could control him, and no one was trying to control the guy,” Smith said. “… That’s what was so bizarre about it. No one understood why he came down to make the speech to begin with, and it just caused friction for no other reason than to cause friction.”

Heiner missed a key piece of the electoral puzzle when Bevin won Fayette County by 349 votes over Comer, Smith said. Heiner finished with 28.7 percent of the 12,214 votes cast in central Kentucky’s most populous county.

“I think ultimately (Heiner) did everything he intended to do except for the central Kentucky part of that plan,” Smith said. “He needed to be somewhere between 45 and 48, up to 50 percent there in Fayette County, and instead he finished third. When you start taking votes off and putting votes on, all of a sudden that would have changed the race dramatically I think.”

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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