- Associated Press - Thursday, May 12, 2016

HENDERSON, Ky. (AP) - Three men with accents and flashlights cut a hole in a chain-link fence to sneak into the country while Mike Pape, a Republican candidate for Congress, watches from the shadows.

The men vow to stop Pape because of his promise to help Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump build a wall on the U.S-Mexico border. That’s when Pape turns to the camera, telling viewers he approves of one of the strangest campaign ads so far this year.

While many Republican candidates are either ignoring or distancing themselves from the party’s presumptive nominee for president, Pape is the exception in the contentious Republican primary to replace retiring U.S. Rep. Ed Whitfield in Kentucky’s 1st Congressional District. It is the only open seat of Kentucky’s six congressional districts.

Pape’s embrace of Trump is part strategy - the New Yorker won 19 of the 35 counties in the district in the March Republican caucus - and part necessity. While Pape was Whitfield’s district director for the past two decades, his name has never appeared on the ballot. Fellow candidate James Comer is a former state legislator and agriculture commissioner. Comer lost the Republican nomination for governor last year by 83 votes but won 22 of the 35 counties that make up the congressional district.

But Pape views that as a liability for Comer in today’s Trump-dominated political climate. He says he voted for Trump in Kentucky’s Republican caucus, although his ads attempt to appeal to supporters of both Trump and former Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz. Pape calls Comer the establishment candidate of Mitch McConnell, Kentucky’s senior U.S. senator and Senate majority leader.

“I’ve been working in this district longer than Jamie Comer ever has,” Pape said. “The people of the first district are going to decide who the next congressman is and I don’t think Mitch McConnell is in line right now with the conservative base of this district. In fact, I know that.”

McConnell, who won every county in the 1st District in the 2014 primary and general election, has not endorsed a candidate in the race. But his allies in Kentucky have been working hard behind the scenes to elect Comer.

“Sen. McConnell has not officially endorsed anyone in this race but he believes that a conservative like James Comer would make a great member of Congress,” said Terry Carmack, McConnell’s top aide in Kentucky.

Comer won’t say for whom he voted in Kentucky’s presidential caucus, but says he will support the Republican nominee. He is running a more traditional campaign, receiving endorsements from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Rifle Association and even the Tea Party Express. His top issue is to build new bridges on I-69 to connect Henderson with Evansville, Indiana.

Comer still carries some scars from last year’s Republican primary for governor, during which a former college girlfriend accused him of abusing her physically and emotionally. Comer denies the allegations. Asked if they have resurfaced in the congressional race, he shook his head before knocking three times on a table.

“I’m at home here in the first district,” he said. “I never was real comfortable in northern Kentucky or Louisville, and that showed up on Election Day.”

He touts his experience running a state agency and writing laws in the state legislature while trying to avoid the dreaded label of “establishment candidate.” One way he does this is by criticizing Whitfield, the retiring congressman who has endorsed Pape.

“He hasn’t been present a lot,” Comer said. “I’m going to be at the community meetings. I’m going to be a fixture in the first district.”

A spokesman for Whitfield did not respond to Comer’s comments.

Other candidates include Jason Batts, a county attorney who was the only Republican to get elected in Hickman County in 2014. A judge advocate in the Army Reserve, Batts also focuses mostly on national security issues in light of the recent terrorist attacks in Europe.

“If you want political experience, if you want more of the same, I’m probably not your candidate,” he said.

Candidate Miles A. Caughey Jr., who often appears in public with overalls and a long beard, says he is a military veteran who now raises cattle in Peedee. He has promised to fight the “international financiers” he says have turned the U.S. into the world’s largest debtor nation. He likes to end his campaign speeches by saying he is “totally self-financed with my VA disability check.”

The winner of Tuesday’s primary will face Democrat Samuel Gaskins in November.

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