- Associated Press - Monday, September 28, 2015

LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) - Agriculture Commissioner James Comer said Monday he plans to “ride off into the sunset” when his term ends in December after an agonizing defeat in May’s Republican primary for governor by just 83 votes.

But judging by the reaction Comer received at the Hemp Industries Association’s annual conference on Monday, he might have some political life left in him.

“He is a bit of a rock star around here,” said Eric Steenstra, executive director of the association, which is holding its annual conference in Kentucky for the first time.

Comer built his political career on hemp, the less potent cousin of marijuana that has enjoyed a renaissance in recent years thanks to its other uses in health care and manufacturing. When Comer first ran for office, hemp was illegal to grow in Kentucky. Four years later 121 growers have planted 1,742 acres of hemp across the state, including research plots at seven state universities. Even Mitch McConnell, the Republican majority leader of the U.S. Senate, posed for a picture in front of a hemp crop at the University of Kentucky recently.

Monday, Comer told the conference Kentucky is the leading industrial hemp-producing state in the country. And he recounted the political risks he took to make that happen, including taking on leaders of his own party while becoming the only Republican to win a statewide election in 2011. The crowd gave him a standing ovation and many mobbed him in the hallway after his speech, seeking pictures and advice on future hemp legislation.

But Comer’s political ambitions were thwarted by Louisville businessman Matt Bevin, who survived a furious four-way Republican primary in May to take on Democratic nominee Jack Conway for governor in November. Comer’s campaign was rocked when a former girlfriend wrote a letter to the Courier-Journal alleging Comer had abused her while the two dated in college. Comer forcefully denied the allegations.

“Anytime you run for office you risk losing, but the way that election ended is something I’ll never probably get over,” Comer said.

Now Comer says he plans to start a company in his native Monroe County focusing on farming and commercial development. But he left open the possibility of running for office in the future, possibly Kentucky’s 1st Congressional District seat if it ever becomes available.

“(The governor’s race) left a bad taste in my mouth. But I’ll say this: There is no place like home,” Comer said. “If I ever did anything again it would probably be around home and not so much statewide.”

U.S. Rep. Ed Whitfield has represented Kentucky’s 1st Congressional district since 1995, part of the “Republican revolution” in 1994 when he ousted a freshman Democratic congressman to help Republicans take control of the House of Representatives. But Whitfield is being investigated by the House Ethics Committee on allegations he let his wife lobby his staff on issues related to her employer, The Humane Society.

Whitfield has denied the allegations and called them politically motivated. He told CN2 earlier this year he would seek re-election to a 12th term. But the ethics investigations have prompted rumors that Whitfield could announce his retirement soon, joining Republican House Speaker John Boehner, who announced earlier this week he would retire at the end of October. Whitfield spokesman Marty Irby said Whitfield has “no current plans” to announce his retirement.

Comer called Whitfield a friend and said he would never challenge him in a Republican primary.

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