On the surface, it looks like a classic Kentucky political evolution: An ambitious state legislator takes a position on a divisive issue—the expansion of gambling—that fits his conservative district, then changes his tune in preparation to run statewide.
The legislator in question, James Comer, is as ambitious a politician as they come. He did not end up winning the Kentucky governor’s office in 2015, but he did land in Congress soon after.
Today, Comer is leading the House GOP’s effort to probe the Biden administration as chairman of the House Oversight Committee. For months, he has attempted to build a case that the president and his family have misused their power and peddled influence for personal gain.
Comer’s maneuvering on gambling a decade ago might not seem a part of that story. But a closer look at the details of his about-face raises the kind of questions about influence and ethics in politics that might intrigue an investigator like Comer himself.
First elected to the state legislature in 2000 at the age of 27, Comer represented a rural, conservative Christian swath of western Kentucky, where gambling was viewed with suspicion.
In 2008, he voted against legislation that would have authorized nine new casinos in the state—a top priority of the state’s influential horse-racing industry, which still has close to a monopoly over gambling in the state.
Through 2010, Comer stuck to this position, filling out a candidate survey in which he expressed opposition to allowing virtual slot machines at Kentucky horse-racing tracks.
But Comer’s position began to shift after he won the race for Kentucky agriculture commissioner in 2011 with a campaign supported by a $2,000 maximum contribution from the CEO of Churchill Downs, the owner of the legendary Kentucky Derby racetrack, the state’s leading gambling operator and an unrelenting political force.
In February 2012, fresh into his tenure as agriculture commissioner, Comer testified in favor of a constitutional amendment to accomplish what he’d voted against a few years earlier: the creation of new gambling facilities, seven in total, around Kentucky.
Tying the issue into the state’s storied equestrian history, Comer said, “The interest we have is the health of the horse industry, and the domino effect on the agriculture community should it fail… This signature industry deserves an opportunity to make its case to the public.”
The amendment failed. But Comer quickly became a favorite of Churchill Downs, a development that substantially benefited him politically and personally.
In 2013, Comer was still carrying tens of thousands of dollars in debt from his 2011 run, the byproduct of an eleventh hour $100,000 loan he gave to his own campaign. That spring, one of Kentucky’s most influential men held a fundraiser at his Louisville home to retire Comer’s debt: Brett Hale, then a senior vice president of Churchill Downs.
Thanks to maximum-level contributions from Hale and other Churchill Downs brass, the event eliminated Comer’s outstanding debt of roughly $28,000 with a haul of $36,000. Churchill Downs employees accounted for $5,300 of that total.
Since that campaign debt was owed to Comer himself—and he was not running for any other office at the time—those funds simply went right back into his own pocket.
The benefits flowed both ways. The summer before the Louisville fundraiser, Comer hired Hale’s brother to work a $60,000-per year job as his “special assistant” in the agriculture commissioner’s office. And in September 2013, Comer’s chief of staff, an attorney, represented Hale pro bono to try and scuttle a speeding ticket.
By 2014, Comer was gearing up for a run for governor, and Churchill Downs seemed eager to elevate allies who would advance their goal of expanding gambling in Kentucky. The race track contributed $100,000 to a conservative PAC that Comer supported and openly hoped would back him in the governor race. (It’s unclear if it did; records are inconclusive.)
In January 2015, months before the primary election that Comer would lose to Matt Bevin by fewer than 100 votes, he was listed as an honorary co-chairman of a group called Kentucky Wins, a vehicle of pro-gambling interests that aimed to put gambling expansion to a public vote.
The facts raise questions about the ethical foundation of Comer’s evolution on the gambling issue, according to Stuart McPhail, litigation counsel with the watchdog group CREW.
“What you’re seeing is a politician who is opposed to this ideologically, and money starts to flow to them before there’s any apparent change in view, and lo and behold, their view starts to change,” said McPhail. “There’s no speech to persuade anyone there. Money isn’t buying ads or newspaper articles… it’s being used at the very least, to buy influence.”
“There’s a story you could tell that he just switched his views on this for pure political ambitions—or he was persuaded by other facts,” he continued. “It’s a reason why it’s often hard to suss out corrupt actions from innocent ones.”
To some Kentucky politicians who know the players involved, the pattern isn’t necessarily surprising—but it’s still “disappointing,” said Jim Wayne, a Democrat who represented Louisville in the statehouse for three decades and served with Comer.
“Jamie has changed a lot,” Wayne said, referencing his climb from obscure state legislator to Washington power player. “If I were to strip away all the ambition and external facade Jamie has created in the last 15 years, I’d like to hope at the core, there’s a really good guy, a genuine farmer from Monroe County. This makes me question whether that core is real.”
Wayne also said that Comer’s coziness with Churchill Downs amid his shift on gambling casts his current investigation of the Biden administration—with its strong emphasis on alleged “influence-peddling” by Biden family members—in a fresh light.
“He’s so high-profile,” Wayne said. “If he’s going to be the one casting aspersions on our president and his family, we need to say wait a minute, what’s your background?”
Comer’s Democratic antagonists in Washington have certainly been asking that question. Kyle Herrig, executive director of the Congressional Integrity Project—an outside group that has run interference on the House GOP’s Biden investigations—argued that Comer has “stacked the deck” in his own favor.
“As Oversight chair, he has been more than happy to make house money out of taxpayer dollars, manufacturing political investigations—in spite of a lack of evidence—to tip the scales for Trump,” Herrig said. “If Jim Comer actually wanted to expose public corruption, he could come clean on his own record of misconduct and face the consequences."
A spokesman for Comer did not respond to a request for comment. Hale also did not respond to a request for comment.
The Daily Beast asked Tonya Abeln, Churchill Downs’ vice president of communications, whether the company intended to influence Comer’s position on gambling and whether it had contributed at all to his 2015 governor campaign.
“Churchill Downs Incorporated’s response to both of your specific questions below would very simply be, ‘No,’” Abeln replied in an email.
Six months into his tenure as Oversight chairman, Comer has yet to unearth the explosive evidence of the Biden family’s corruption and wrongdoing that he and other top Republicans promised.
In May, Comer’s committee held a much-hyped press conference in which Republicans laid out a case that Biden family members had leveraged their proximity to the former vice president to net money from foreign-run companies; however, he could not prove Biden’s personal involvement in any scheme.
Conservative political and media figures have seemed disappointed with Comer’s effort so far. In a Fox News interview the day after Comer’s press conference, an unimpressed Steve Doocy told Comer, “You don’t actually have any facts.”
Since his ascent to Oversight chairman, Comer’s own record has largely been unexplored, save for a deep dive The New York Times published in March. The paper described Comer’s “cutthroat” tactics to climb the political ladder, saying he “presents himself as an affable country boy of limited abilities, but… has proved to be a methodical and transactional political operator, willing to go to great lengths to crush his adversaries.”
The details of Comer’s relationship with Churchill Downs certainly speak to his transactional sensibility, as well as his methodical political strategy.
During Comer’s early years in politics, polling showed that majorities of Kentuckians supported expanding gambling at race tracks. But his swath of rural, south-central Kentucky was dominated by conservative Christians, who constitute some of the most vocal and organized forces opposing the expansion of gambling in the state.
In 2011, Comer’s landslide victory to become state agriculture commissioner was widely seen as a prelude to a run for governor. Opposing gambling expansion hardly would have been a dealbreaker for Comer with voters, but it would have alienated one of the state’s most powerful interests.
In Kentucky, the equestrian industry is not only a cherished cultural touchstone and source of pride, but a serious economic force. No one entity embodies the dynamic more so than Churchill Downs. The company operates the race track of the same name in Louisville, which hosts the Kentucky Derby, a multi-day bonanza that brings in tens of millions of dollars to the state each year.
But year-round betting is the company’s bread and butter. Through the years, Churchill Downs and its competitors have created new avenues for the public to wager on their core product while remaining in compliance with Kentucky law, which forbids the traditional slot machine and table gambling now prevalent in other states.
Mainly, race tracks have found a way to allow betting on races that have already happened—called “instant racing”—which is similar to betting on a slot machine.
Wayne, the former state legislator, said that expanding gambling—both in the number of physical sites allowed as well as in types of wagering—has been a priority for Churchill Downs since he arrived in Frankfort in 1991.
“They have tried just about every trick that has ever been created to get legislators to support that,” he said. “They play hardball. They are heavy hitters.”
Determined to cultivate allies who could finally achieve their goals, Churchill likely saw in Comer a potential future ally—and vice versa. As Comer was expanding his ambitions statewide, Wayne said, “to get rid of the Ag Commissioner debt, he knows Churchill can fill his coffers. He’d be aware of that.”
Given Comer’s relative personal wealth, “$30,000 would not be an excessive burden for him,” said Wayne. “But it’s still a way to cultivate favor on Churchill Downs’ part.”
It’s unclear what Churchill got out of its investment in Comer, aside from some personal favors to Hale from Comer’s agriculture commissioner office.
But Churchill Downs’ motivations in 2015, when Comer ran for governor, were hardly a secret to Kentucky political observers. “Churchill is betting a pro-expanded gambling Republican governor can talk a Republican-controlled House and a Republican controlled Senate” into putting a constitutional amendment to expand gambling to voters, wrote a columnist for the Lexington Herald-Leader.
While it has since notched some wins—like requiring newly approved sports gambling in Kentucky to run through the race tracks—the horse-racing industry’s goal of pushing the state legislature or voters to approve expanded gambling has not become reality.
Comer did not end up winning that 2015 governor primary, but even as he climbs the ranks in Washington insiders widely suspect he will try again someday, after his efforts to probe the Biden administration end.
In 2021, when he said he did not plan to run for Kentucky governor in 2023, Comer sounded committed to his duties in Washington.
“I want to make government more efficient, I want to root out waste, fraud, abuse, and mismanagement,” Comer told a local TV station. “That’s kind of what my background in Kentucky was when I was in Frankfort for 15 years, so I think that right now I’m in a pretty good spot in Washington.”