Amid a media blitz investigating the “Biden Crime Family,” Comer is touting bipartisanship and raising loads of cash. He won’t rule out a run for governor or the Senate in Kentucky.
Shortly after Republican James Comer was elected as Kentucky’s agriculture commissioner in 2011, he phoned an old colleague from the Statehouse and asked whether he would serve on his transition team: Derrick Graham, a Democrat.
The friendly gesture was the kind of bipartisan comity Comer came to be known for during his decadelong career in the Kentucky House of Representatives and running the state’s critical Agriculture Department. Democrats back home describe the “Jamie Comer” they knew then as a pragmatic “centrist,” someone they could reach to across the aisle and work with on industrial hemp production and aquafarming to an unpopular investigation into a high-profile member of his own party.
But after he seized the U.S. House Oversight Committee gavel this year, Comer quickly shed that bipartisan image — and earned the wrath of the very Democrats who once praised him. During his eight months as chairman, Comer, who is in his fourth term in Congress, has emerged as the face of the GOP’s sprawling — and some have said conspiratorial — probes into Hunter Biden and the chief antagonist to his father, President Joe Biden.
Comer has become a fixture on Fox News and other conservative media outlets, where he serves up red meat for the right, repeatedly invoking the “Biden Crime Family,” casually accusing the president — without evidence — of engaging in an “influence peddling scheme” and violating the Foreign Agents Registration Act, and mocking Hunter Biden’s past drug addiction and money problems.
“It’s a different Jamie Comer in Washington than what we have here in Kentucky,” said Graham, now the minority leader in the state House, who initially viewed Comer as being in the mold of the late Sen. John Sherman Cooper and the late Rep. Tim Lee Carter, Republicans “who got things done.”
“It really does surprise me, because this individual I see when I watch him on TV is totally different than the individual that I served with in the House,” Graham added. “And it’s unfortunate that we have come to a place where it’s not about policy — it’s about personality. And that’s not a good thing for governing. … It’s a division that is causing people to draw sides. And that’s not good for our country.”
While the Biden probe has divided Democrats and Republicans, they agree on one thing: The ambitious Comer, 51, now has the stature, national fundraising network and popularity in the GOP to excel in a future race for governor or to succeed arguably the state’s most powerful politician, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who is 81 and has been battling health issues. On Wednesday, McConnell appeared to freeze for a second time in as many months when a reporter asked him whether he plans to run for re-election.
Comer, in a phone interview from Kentucky, said he’s happy serving in the House but didn’t rule out a bid for higher office, saying: “I can’t predict the future. I don’t know what’ll happen.”
Speaking before McConnell’s latest apparent freeze, Comer said he is a firm believer in term limits and eventually wants to return to his farming operation in Monroe County.
“I certainly don’t want to be one of these people that stay in Washington forever and get old,” he said. “I think that’s not a good business model.”
Comer nearly became Kentucky’s governor in 2015. He lost by just 83 votes in the GOP primary to tea party favorite Matt Bevin, who portrayed himself as the most conservative candidate and went on to win the general election. During the final stretch of the primary campaign, a former girlfriend from college accused Comer of physically and mentally abusing her during their two-year relationship. Comer denied the allegations.
“I could have run for governor this time. And I don’t think a lot of the Republicans that filed would have filed if I had run. I think I could have won,” he said. “But I knew I had the opportunity to be chairman of this committee. I knew it would be, in my opinion, the most high-profile position in the House.”
That national platform has generated a huge fundraising windfall for Comer. Since he took over the committee chairmanship and launched the Biden probe in January, his campaign committee has had a staggering increase in small-dollar donations, having raised $1 million during the first six months of 2023, compared to a little more than $230,000 in the first six months of 2021, according to campaign finance records.
Ahead of the first GOP presidential primary debate last week, Comer huddled behind closed doors with donors in Milwaukee and briefed them on the party’s Biden investigations.
In the interview, Comer aggressively pushed back against the idea that he had abandoned his bipartisan bona fides, even suggesting he could still work with progressives like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y.
“Nothing has changed. I’ve always been bipartisan. I just happened to be leading this investigation that they consider partisan because I’m investigating Biden, a Democrat, for corruption,” Comer said.
Comer passed on running for governor this year, he said, so he could focus on his probe into the Bidens. Attorney General Daniel Cameron, a Republican, will take on Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear this fall — a reminder that members of both parties have been elected to statewide office recently and perhaps one reason Comer is so eager to tout and defend his bipartisan record.
A bipartisan record
Former Rep. John Yarmuth, D-Ky., said he has also noticed a change in Comer over the years. They often commuted on the same flight between Kentucky and Washington after Comer won election to Congress in 2016.
“We’ve talked a lot over those six years, and all I can say is I think he has changed because of his position,” Yarmuth said, referring to Comer’s Oversight Committee role. “He’s become a rabid partisan.”
Yarmuth first got to know Comer a decade ago when Comer invited him to speak on a panel with him, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., in support of industrial hemp production.
“That’s where liberals and libertarians are on the same page. So I got to know him a little bit then. He seemed like a relatively nonpartisan type. He was easy to work with,” Yarmuth said.
That has changed. “In my part of Kentucky, people look at him and think he’s an embarrassment,” said Yarmuth, who represented Louisville. “Whether that hurts him politically in the long run or not is another question — a lot of people do some pretty stupid things and do very well.”
In response to criticisms, Comer rattled off a list of his bipartisan wins. One of his first acts as agriculture commissioner, he said, was to audit and work with Democrats to investigate his GOP predecessor, Richie Farmer, a former University of Kentucky basketball player.
“I led an investigation that put the most beloved Republican incumbent in Kentucky in prison. My predecessor went to prison for corruption,” he said. “So that hurt me politically with Republicans. I don’t discriminate.”
Comer also highlighted his independent streak, pointing out he broke with President Donald Trump and many House GOP colleagues by voting to certify Biden’s election victory in 2020.