Matt Bevin addresses supporters after finishing with 83-vote lead in GOP primary
Matt Bevin addresses supporters after finishing with an 83-vote lead in the GOP primary for governor on Tuesday. | Photo by Joe Sonka

One year after suffering a blowout defeat in the Republican primary for U.S. Senate, Matt Bevin appears to have won both redemption and the Republican nomination for governor of Kentucky by a razor-tight 83-vote margin over Agriculture Commissioner James Comer.

Although Comer indicated last night he would request an official recanvass of the votes, he also said he would not pursue a subsequent recount unless it shows the margin significantly narrows, which is unlikely.

Bevin was thought to be a longshot candidate when he entered the race just before the filing deadline in January, but he appeared to benefit in the campaign’s final weeks from a fierce and ugly battle between Comer and Hal Heiner surrounding allegations that Comer physically and emotionally abused a former college girlfriend. One of Bevin’s final TV ads featured actors portraying Comer and Heiner engaged in a food fight, with Bevin as the candidate who was above the fray and focused on the issues.

While some media outlets called the race for Bevin early after he sprinted to an early lead, Comer suddenly began to surge back into contention as counties in the southern part of Kentucky swung heavily in his direction. As supporters anxiously awaited Bevin’s victory speech at the Galt House in Louisville, they let out gasps of shock and panic as Comer took a 30-vote lead with more than 98 percent of precincts reporting. Just before 10 p.m., Bevin edged back ahead by 83 votes with all precincts recorded. He then addressed an ecstatic crowd.

“For those of you in the media who thought Republican politics in the state of Kentucky was boring, think again,” he said.

With virtually no support from the establishment of the Republican Party, Bevin took last night’s primary with less than one-third of all votes cast. In fact, he received roughly 55,000 fewer votes than he tallied in last year’s primary, when Sen. Mitch McConnell trounced him by 25 percent. For many years, Kentucky primaries required a runoff election between the top two finishers if no one received more than 40 percent of the vote, but that was recently eliminated.

As long as Bevin’s victory stands, Kentucky Republicans must heal internal wounds caused by not just this contentious gubernatorial primary, but last year’s Senate primary as well.

Bevin introducing his many children at last night's celebration
Bevin introducing his children at last night’s celebration | Photo by Joe Sonka

McConnell and his top allies blasted Bevin for being a “con man” and liar in that race, with several repeating those charges as recently as last month. McConnell usually leads a GOP unity rally in Frankfort the Saturday after the primary at party headquarters; that event will not happen this year. The Republican Party of Kentucky tells Insider Louisville they will not do so because of the recanvass and Memorial Day weekend, but to expect their Lincoln Day Dinner next Saturday in Lexington to serve that purpose.

In his speech last night, Bevin stressed that he would reach out in the general election to all voters “who love Kentucky” while laying down a conservative agenda that includes dismantling Kynect, pushing so-called “right to work” legislation, and repealing Common Core. Referencing the fact that his running mate, Jenean Hampton, grew up in Detroit in the 1960s, Bevin compared the riots at that time to those recently in Baltimore, calling such urban unrest “the type of chaos that happens when non-conservative ideas rise to the top.”

Such statements — and his hard-right policy positions — are part of the reason so many establishment Republicans feared Bevin would win their nomination. It’s also why many Democrats supporting Jack Conway, their candidate for governor, were openly rooting for Bevin to pull off an upset. While Bevin may not be perceived as the strongest general election challenger to Conway for those reasons, it’s worth noting that many said the same thing about now-Sen. Rand Paul in 2010, when he bested moderate Trey Grayson in that U.S. Senate primary and went on to easily defeat Conway in the general election.

As for how Bevin pulled off his apparent victory last night, results show that he not only won large victories in northern counties — as expected — but managed to pick up victories in counties throughout the state as well:

Matt Bevin won most counties along the Ohio River, stretching all the way from Boyd County in the east to Carlisle County in the west
Matt Bevin won most counties along the Ohio River, stretching all the way from Boyd County in the east to Carlisle County in the west.

Bevin wound up winning a large majority of the counties along the Ohio River, ranging from Boyd County in the east to the small Carlisle County in the west. Those counties included the populous Boone County in northern Kentucky, where Bevin won handily with 57 percent of the vote, and Daviess County (Owensboro) in the west.

While Heiner won by a large margin in Jefferson County, Bevin managed to win all the counties that surround it. And although Comer was expected to dominate the farm-heavy western part of the state, Bevin would up winning roughly the same amount of counties in that region. Bevin also surprisingly won eight counties in eastern Kentucky, a region that was expected to be a dogfight among Comer, Heiner and Will T. Scott, the underfunded candidate who finished well behind in fourth place.

In a race this close where every vote matters, Comer supporters will likely point to his extremely poor showing in Jefferson County, which accounted for more than 16 percent of total Republican primary voters in the state. While expected to finish behind Louisvillians Heiner and Bevin, Comer managed less than 13 percent of the vote there, meaning that even a lowly 14 percent showing could have won him a comfortable victory.

Heiner, who jumped out to an early lead in the polls this year after his TV ads initially dominated the airwaves, ultimately failed to expand his support beyond Louisville and pockets of eastern Kentucky. Heiner and the Super PAC supporting him spent more than all other candidates in the race combined, with Heiner chipping in almost $5 million from his own pocket — or roughly $75 per vote he received.

Assuming no surprises in the recanvass, Bevin and Conway will face off in the general election, with only one outcome for certain: Kentucky will have its first governor hailing from the city of Louisville in 60 years.

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Joe Sonka
Joe Sonka is a staff writer at Insider Louisville focusing on government, politics, education and public safety. He is a former news editor and staff writer at LEO Weekly and has also freelanced for The Nation and ThinkProgress. He has won first place awards from the Louisville Metro chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists in the categories of Health Reporting, Enterprise Reporting, Government/Politics, Minority/Women’s Affairs Reporting, Continuing Coverage and Best Blog. Email him at [email protected]