Let the courting begin: 2015 running mate derby has Republican hopefuls on the prowl

09/15/2013 10:15 PM

Earlier this summer when U.S. Rep. Brett Guthrie announced he wouldn’t run for governor in 2015, it looked like first-term Agriculture Commissioner James Comer would have a clear path to the GOP nomination.

Then came Fancy Farm. Former Louisville councilman and 2010 mayoral candidate Hal Heiner showed up and told reporters he was considering the race.

Heiner, a successful businessman and property owner, has the ability to pump some of his own money into a primary run. So that might have bumped up the urgency for Comer to find a running mate and begin raising cash. In Kentucky, a candidate for governor must find a slate-mate before filing paperwork with the Registry of Election Finance to begin raising money.

It’s unclear how many votes any running mate can bring to a ticket. But conventional wisdom is that the No. 2 on a ticket should provide some balance — geographically, philosophically or in terms of background or alliances.

Comer hails from Monroe County in Republican-heavy south-central Kentucky. So someone from an urban area – particularly Louisville or Northern Kentucky – could provide the most geographic balance.

Possible contenders:

State Sen. Damon Thayer of Georgetown – Thayer’s 17 Senate district straddles two key areas: Northern Kentucky and the Lexington market. Thayer has established himself as a hard worker in Frankfort and has never shied away from the media, which has made him a prominent party spokesman but has sometimes annoyed some of his more spotlight-averse colleagues. But as one political observer said, speculation about Thayer only picked up after giving a fiery speech during a GOP fundraiser this summer in Covington featuring Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. And Thayer is willing:

Nate Morris – Morris is described as a friend of Comer’s and has mostly been behind-the-scenes in Kentucky Republican politics as a fundraiser. While he has little name recognition and would be a rookie candidate, Morris would bring a business background, as CEO of Rubicon Global, a waste and recycling service firm. Morris also represented the Kentucky Economic Development Cabinet in China during Gov. Ernie Fletcher’s administration. His background as self-made businessman who catapulted from Kentucky public schools to Princeton to an international business founder also makes him an attractive pick.

Other possible fit:

Republican fundraiser Kelly Knight has been a staunch supporter of Comer, as has Knight’s partner, coal company owner Joe Craft. Knight and Craft are powerful figures in the Republican Party nationally, serving as co-chairs of Mitt Romney’s campaign in Kentucky and hosting figures such as Speaker John Boehner for events. Knight, a native of Glasgow who now lives in Lexington, would be a first-time candidate. But she did land a speaking role at the Republican National Convention calling out vote totals of each state during the nomination process. President George W. Bush also appointed Knight as an alternate delegate to the 62nd United Nations General Assembly session in 2007.

Long shots:

Cathy Bailey of Louisville – Bailey has been a key GOP fund-raiser over the last decade and has national ties to Republicans such as Mike Huckabee and George W. Bush, for whom she was a top fundraiser and served as U.S. Ambassador to Latvia during his presidency. But Bailey also has maintained her own ambitions to run statewide at the top of the ticket, including mulling a 2011 run for governor.

State Rep. Julie Raque Adams has become a rising star in the party. While she might have been atop the potential running mate list earlier this summer, her announcement last week to seek Julie Denton’s Senate seat in the wake of Denton’s decision not to run again has likely taken her out of consideration. Comer won’t be able to wait until after the November 2014 election to announce his slate and begin raising money.

Should Heiner go west or ‘Old 5th’?

Heiner confirmed last week that he spoke with 2011 attorney general candidate Todd P’Pool of Hopkins County and encouraged him to run for statewide office again in 2015. But he wouldn’t confirm that they talked about forming a slate. Here’s what Heiner said:

P’Pool proved in 2011 that he could give a fiery speech on the trail, but his campaign fizzled in the final weeks, especially as it ran out of ad money. It wouldn’t be a plus that Heiner and P’Pool are coming off losses in their last races.

And while having a running mate with connections to western Kentucky could be a big boost in a general election, it’s not as helpful in a Republican primary. The 1st Congressional District includes 173,000 registered Republicans compared to more than 302,000 Democrats. Only the 3rd District in Louisville – where Heiner is from – has a bigger spread between registered Democrats and Republicans.

And while likely Republican rival Comer technically hails from the 1st Congressional District, his home county of Monroe is much closer geographically to the bed-rock Republican area of the “Old 5th” district in south-central Kentucky.

Heiner might be looking to the “Old 5th,” especially someone with connections to U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers of Somerset. Rogers can prove to be a valuable ally in a GOP primary. He and Comer disagreed over the legalization of hemp growing in Kentucky giving him some motive to help Comer’s chief rival. And if U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell’s camp helps Comer as it did during the 2011 ag commissioner race, that might prove extra incentive for Rogers to get involved. McConnell and Rogers haven’t always seen eye-to-eye, including about which Republican should run for governor. McConnell openly pushed for then-Congressman Fletcher to run in 2003 instead of Rogers. Plus, it might help Heiner to have someone on the ticket from a rural area, as opposed to from another urban area like Northern Kentucky, even though that’s a GOP stronghold.

Potential fits:
State Sen. Chris Girdler, R-Somerset, who is not up for re-election until 2016. Girdler is the former district director for Rogers. He’s young and has ties to a key swath of the GOP area in southern Kentucky. And as a relatively new lawmaker first elected in 2012, he can provide a credible tie to the Kentucky legislature without

Former Kentucky Adjutant General Donald Storm lives in Elizabethtown but is from Laurel County. Storm, who was the head of the Kentucky National Guard under Flether, was David Williams’ initial running mate pick in 2011 until polling data convinced Williams that Richie Farmer helped him (at that time) more. Though politically untested, Storm would provide a gravitas to the ticket.

Jess Correll, a banker from Lincoln County who has been a prolific donor to Republican candidates and has long been rumored to be interested in running for governor. He is a Somerset native and currently is chairman of Stanford-based First Southern Bancorp. His background as a businessman without experience in Frankfort, however, might be too similar to Heiner’s.

Long shot:

State Sen. Sara Beth Gregory of Monticello is another legislator seen as a rising star. She hails from the right region. But Gregory is up for re-election in 2014 and already has drawn a credible primary challenge from Taylor County Republican Max Wise, likely taking her out of consideration as a slate-mate.

Outside chance to join the ticket with either Comer or Heiner:

Alecia Webb-Edgington – the former state representative from Kenton County and retired Kentucky State Police major is well-known and respected in GOP circles in Northern Kentucky. She also hails from Edmonson County giving her strong ties to two important regions. After finishing second in a hard-fought primary for Congress last year, Webb-Edgington has thrown herself into her consulting work and would have to be persuaded to come back into politics.

Rep. Jill York of Grayson. York has proven to be outspoken in the House. She no longer has to worry about a 2014 showdown against House Majority Leader Rocky Adkins now that the redistricting map doesn’t put her home count of Carter in with Adkins home in southern Boyd County.

Senate President Robert Stivers – Stivers is an unlikely running mate mostly because he’s become his own political force in Frankfort as Senate president. In less than a year at the helm of the upper chamber, Stivers has cemented his Republicans’ respect in the legislature by holding the conservative line while proving to be a trustworthy ally and adversary in negotiations with Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear. All that makes him an attractive running mate for any potential candidate but also decreases the likeliness that he would leave the Senate, especially for a No. 2 spot that has no defined job duties.

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