Comer Lost Republican Gubernatorial Primary Despite Late Surge In Big Donations

Campaign finance records filed last week reveal a late burst of six-figure donations to James Comer in his unsuccessful bid for the Republican nomination for Kentucky governor last month, with similar sums going to a political organization aiming to defeat the eventual primary winner, Matt Bevin.

These latest records shed light on so-called “unauthorized campaign committees,” which can raise and spend money to support or oppose candidates — without the authorization of candidates themselves. Unlike personal donations that are capped at $1,000 in Kentucky, the committees can donate as much as they’d like.

According to candidates’ reports filed with the Kentucky Registry of Election Finance, two of these committees spent $743,250 during the period May 6-June 18, about half for Comer, half against Bevin.

Last month Bevin defeated Comer by 83 votes to win the Republican nomination to oppose Democrat Jack Conway in the Nov. 3 election for governor. A millionaire businessman from Louisville, Bevin received no support from unauthorized committees in the May-June reporting period.

Comer’s 11th-hour boost came from Kentuckians for Growth, Opportunity & Prosperity, a committee headed by investment adviser and Republican fundraiser Richard Knock of Union, in Northern Kentucky. It gave Comer $315,000, mostly in the week before the primary. The money helped Comer pay for more than $300,000 in TV ads in May.

James Comer and his wife at the 2014 Fancy Farm event.

James Comer and his wife at the 2014 Fancy Farm event.

Records show most of that $315,000 came from out of state. A trust set up by Joseph Craft III, chief executive of Alliance Resource Partners, a Tulsa, Okla., coal company, gave the committee $150,000, raising his total contribution to the committee to $628,500. Barbara Banke, chairwoman of Jackson Family Wines in Santa Rosa, Calif., gave $100,000. Bennett Hatfield, CEO of Charleston, W.Va.-based Patriot Coal Corp. until stepping down in April, gave $10,000.

Money from Comer’s biggest donor base — individuals — shrank to $33,155 during the May-June period, down from $47,940 in the period from April 19 to May 5. The unauthorized booster committee, though, allowed other Kentuckians to come to his aid.

The committee received $25,000 from the Coalition for Prosperous Kentucky, whose president, Lexington attorney Darren Embry, runs it from his law firm’s office.  It received $2,500 from Mid-State Recycling Co. in Glasgow. The coalition and Mid-State each gave the pro-Comer committee more than $470,000 during the primary campaign.

Comer’s other late boost from an unauthorized campaign committee came in the form of a negative blitz against Bevin. Kentucky Family Values, whose chairman is Hopkinsville trial attorney Douglas Myers, raised $328,250 from May 6 to June 18. The committee received $200,000 from the Better Schools Kentucky political action committee, $50,000 from the Kentucky Justice Association — the trade group for trial lawyers — and $10,000 from the Kentucky State AFL-CIO. Kentucky Family Values did not endorse a candidate.

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Third-place finisher Hal Heiner had the backing of one unauthorized campaign committee, the Bluegrass Action Fund. Its report filed last week lists Joe Burgan, Heiner’s campaign manager in his 2010 bid to become Louisville’s mayor, as chairman, while the Kentucky Registry of Election Finance lists Alan Philp of Arlington, Va., as chairman.

On his LinkedIn page, Philp identifies himself as a partner at Collins Anderson Philp Public Affairs in Denver. Before that, he was a regional political director for Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign for two years and served as former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s policy director from 2003 to 2005.

But Philp also serves as president Citizens for a Sound Government, a Denver-based nonprofit with links to the Koch brothers, the billionaire businessmen who back conservative candidates and causes. Citizens for a Sound Government accounted for the only money raised by the Bluegrass Action Fund in the two weeks leading up to the May 19 primary — $64,500 — on May 12.

No unauthorized campaign committees raised or spent money toward negative campaigns against either Heiner or Comer.

Bevin received $856,184 during the May-June campaign finance reporting period. Most of that came in the form of $800,000 in loans from himself.

Reporter James McNair can be reached at jmcnair@kycir.org or (502) 814.6543.

This story was reported by Louisville Public Media’s Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting.

James McNair

James McNair is a veteran investigative reporter who specializes in business and finance issues.

@JMacNews

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