Kentucky's Republican voters narrowly chose Ryan Quarles to represent the GOP in the race for commissioner of agriculture in a down-to-the-wire finish Tuesday night.
Quarles beat fellow state representative Richard Heath in the primary election by about 800 votes.
"All Kentuckians know we enjoy our horse races," Quarles said. "I want to congratulate Richard Heath, my close friend, on a well-run race. I look forward to his guidance and counsel."
Quarles will face Democrat Jean-Marie Lawson Spann in the November general election to replace Republican James Comer Jr., who ran for governor.
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The state agriculture commissioner's duties include promoting Kentucky farms, increasing agricultural markets and promoting rural development.
Spann is the vice president for marketing of Lawson Marketing Inc., an agricultural marketing and consulting company that works with import and exports clients Argentina, Brazil and Europe.
Quarles, 31, is a University of Kentucky graduate and was elected to the state House in 2010 in Northern Kentucky. Hegrew up on his parents' farm in Scott County.
"It's important that we have an agriculture commissioner with a real agriculture background," Quarles said. "One that's had their hands dirty, and one that knows how to navigate Frankfort."
Heath, 59, a Murray State University graduate, was elected to the state House in Western Kentucky in 2012.
Spann said her experience bringing international businesses to Kentucky farms would give her the edge over Quarles in November.
She said connecting Kentucky to these international clients would be one of her missions as commissioner, and she said the contacts she has acquired at Lawson Marketing would give her a head start.
"That's what I do every day in my job now," Spann said. "On day one we will hit the ground running."
Quarles said a strong bipartisan support system, along with his farming experience and relationship with Frankfort, would propel him to the top.
"We have several prominent Democrats already supportive of my campaign," Quarles said. "I have a good relationship with the General Assembly ... which the next agriculture commissioner will have to possess."
Spann said she had not decided her stance on legalizing medical marijuana in Kentucky, but, she said, "If it makes a legal market for our Kentucky farmers ... then I will support and explore it."
Quarles took a similarly ambiguous position, saying he would want the medical community to be involved in the decision by finding out if there are any actual medical benefits to marijuana.
Both candidates voiced concerns about an Environmental Protection Agency rule that aims to clarify which Kentucky water systems are protected by the Clean Water Act. Spann, on her website, said the ruling could increase farmers' cost of production, and thus the cost of food.
Quarles told the Herald-Leader that the American Farm Bureau declared federal regulations the top threat to agriculture.
"I will do everything in my power to push back against the EPA and other regulators," Quarles said. "We cannot allow them to do to our farmers what they've done to the coal industry."