FRANKFORT, Kentucky — A longtime aide to U.S. Rep. Ed Whitfield and the second-place finisher in Kentucky's Republican primary for governor both say they want to replace the retiring 11-term congressman in next year's election.
Republican Agriculture Commissioner James Comer, who lost the Republican primary for governor in May by 83 votes out of nearly a quarter of a million ballots cast, announced Wednesday he would run to replace Whitfield in Kentucky's 1st Congressional District. And Michael Pape, Whitfield's district director, followed with an announcement of his own on Wednesday afternoon.
Whitfield announced Tuesday he would not seek re-election. He was first elected in 1994.
Comer had said on Monday that he was planning to "ride off into the sunset" and start a private company in his hometown when his term as agriculture commissioner ends in December. But Whitfield's retirement in the solidly Republican district that includes Comer's hometown was an opportunity Comer could not dismiss. He called Whitfield's decision "a blessing."
"The first district is home. They want a strong voice in Congress," Comer told The Associated Press. "We've got problems with federal government overreach and we need a congressman that can go in and work closely with the job creators and the risk takers in the first district and I'm confident I can do that."
Pape said his experience working in the 1st District set him apart for the job.
"There are no candidates that have worked longer for or know the issues of the First District better than I do," he said.
Comer appears to be the favorite for the district that extends from Casey County in central Kentucky to the far western counties bordering the Mississippi river. In May's Republican primary for governor, Comer won the 35 counties in the 1st District with 55 percent of the vote in a four-way race. Of the $2.1 million he raised for his primary, $800,000 of it came from donors in the 1st District.
Comer was elected agriculture commissioner in 2011, a year when every other statewide Republican candidate lost. Kentucky's agriculture industry is focused in the western part of the state, meaning Comer has spent the past four years in office connecting with employers, area development districts and heads of local chambers of commerce spread throughout the districts' 35 counties.
But despite all of his advantages, Comer is coming off of a grueling primary in which two other candidates combined with outside groups to spend millions of dollars on TV ads criticizing him for voting to increase his pension as a state legislator. And Comer's campaign was rocked by allegations from a former girlfriend that he abused her while the two dated in college. The woman has declined media interviews, but described her relationship with Comer as "toxic" and "abusive" in a letter to the Courier-Journal.
Comer forcefully denied the allegations, but the scandal consumed his once-promising campaign in the weeks leading up to the election.
"The people in the first district knew that that story wasn't true. They've known me my entire life and they stuck with me. So I don't think that will be an issue," he said. "I'm confident that no candidate would want to even dare use that against me because most people now realize that wasn't true and I don't think that would be politically advantageous to anyone."
Pape said he would work to protect Kentucky's two economic drivers: agriculture and coal. Western Kentucky recently surpassed eastern Kentucky as the leading coal producing region in the state.
"The health and vitality of these two industries are key components to America's economic strength and I will use my experience and ability to end the relentless attacks of the Obama Administration on agriculture and coal," Pape said.
Political newcomer Jason Batts, who was elected Hickman County attorney last year, has also shown interest in the seat. Attempts to reach him were unsuccessful.
No Democrat has indicated an interest in running yet. Kentucky Democratic Party spokesman David Bergstein said party officials are focused on getting Jack Conway elected governor in November.