Four Republicans are vying to be the chosen “Washington outsider” in the primary race for U.S. Rep. Ed Whitfield’s Western Kentucky district, which he has represented in Congress since 1994. But it appears the real horse race is between just two.
After losing to now-Gov. Matt Bevin in last year’s primary race, former Agriculture Commissioner James Comer has the financial edge despite an early fundraising lead by Mike Pape, Whitfield’s longtime district director. Also running are Hickman County Attorney Jason Batts and Trigg County farmer Miles Caughey.
Scott Jennings, a former adviser to President George W. Bush and U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, says Comer has a name recognition advantage in the race after his high-profile gubernatorial bid.
“To build up name ID is not an easy thing, and it takes time and it takes money, and this was not the kind of campaign that was probably conducive to building that sort of name ID that would’ve helped Pape or Batts catch up to Comer,” he says.
Army veteran and farmer Sam Gaskins is the lone Democrat running to represent the 1st District, which was a Democratic stronghold before Whitfield — who announced his retirement last fall — took over in 1994. Whitfield leaves Congress amid an ethics probe into connections between Whitfield and The Humane Society of the United States, for which Whitfield’s wife, Connie Harriman-Whitfield, is a lobbyist.
Despite the lack of name recognition, Pape made a splash by aligning himself with Donald Trump in a recent commercial that showed actors depicting “immigrants” supposedly illegally crossing the border to “Stop Mike Pape.”
“Mike Pape, the conservative running for Congress that will help Trump build the wall,” an actor says in the commercial.
A native of Hopkinsville, Pape has never held public office, although he has worked for Whitfield since the congressman was elected to Congress.
Meanwhile, Comer says he’s the only true “Washington outsider” in the Republican primary.
“I’m the only one with a business background,” he recently told WKMS. “I’ve owned businesses. I’ve created private sector jobs. I continue to have one of the larger farming operations in south-central Kentucky.”
Comer served for one term as agriculture commissioner and touts his creation of a hemp pilot program in Kentucky. Before holding public office, he spent 11 years as a state representative. He also owns businesses in his native Tompkinsville.
On his website, Jason Batts says “public service is a calling, not a career.”
Jennings says candidates are trying to position themselves as people who know how to “fix” Washington.
“That’s a message that is clearly resonating at the presidential level and some other federal campaigns, and so I think it’s natural that it would come to this primary,” he says.
Cheryl Grana, chair of the McCracken County GOP, says Western Kentuckians are concerned with the same issues capturing Republicans’ attention at a national level: immigration, gun rights and the economy. According to a recent report from the state Energy and Environment Cabinet, Western Kentucky lost a quarter of its coal jobs in 2015; statewide, the number of people employed in the coal industry last year — about 6,900 — was at its lowest point since 1898.
“This has been a hard time for the First District because we’ve lost a lot of jobs, coal mining jobs, the economy in general has not been good I know here in Western Kentucky,” she says. “I think that they need someone that’s not beholden to anyone in Washington.”
The primary election is May 17.