He never led until the end, and that’s when it counted.
Republican Matt Bevin, who trailed in every public poll since winning the Republican primary in May by 83 votes, shocked Democrat Jack Conway Tuesday to become the next governor of Kentucky.
With help from national Republicans he has repeatedly shunned, Bevin was able to overcome a campaign of missteps and self-inflicted wounds to become the first Republican governor since Ernie Fletcher and only the second since Louie Nunn left office in 1971.
Bevin was able to defy pundits, political insiders and polling — including one released by his own campaign in October that showed him losing — and emerge a winner Tuesday night.
With the state’s electorate still largely disdainful of President Barack Obama, Bevin capitalized on a political environment made toxic for Democrats during a summer of enormous social change.
He was quick to rush to the defense of Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis when she was briefly jailed for defying a federal judge’s order to issue marriage licenses following the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to legalize same-sex marriage.
In the closing days of the race, Bevin focused on that saga and other social issues, focusing on rural voters’ contempt for Obama and career politicians.
Tuesday’s victory completes a remarkable comeback for a man who was overwhelmingly defeated during last year’s Republican U.S. Senate primary, in which Bevin, picking up the Tea Party mantle, tried and failed to defeat then-U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in a bruising race.
The tension between McConnell and Bevin and the people who surround them continued through this race, but McConnell was quick to put the past behind him and do what he could to help his former opponent win.
Bevin, who continued to focus his efforts on Tea Party and evangelical voters throughout the general election, was at times his own worst enemy.
The Republican spent much of the fall race pushing back against charges, dusted off from the race against McConnell, that he was a “pathological liar” and an “East Coast con man.”
Additionally, Bevin spent months trying to reposition himself from some of the far-right ground he staked out during the primary on issues such as early childhood education and the state’s Medicaid expansion.
Bevin repeatedly accused Conway and the media of lying about him for saying that he wanted to “kick a half a million people off their insurance” despite his adamant response in February when he was asked if he would reverse Gov. Steve Beshear’s executive order expanding Medicaid eligibility to 138 percent of the federal poverty level.
“Absolutely,” Bevin said at the time. “No question about it. I would reverse that immediately.”
In the months that followed his surprise primary win, Bevin sought to soften that position.
Along the way, the Republican candidate seemed to pick counter-productive fights with everyone who wasn’t already on his team.
The Republican Governors Association, which made a massive last-minute financial push to put Bevin over the finish line, pulled out of the race in late September after Bevin had refused to continue his habit of self-financing his campaigns.
Adding to the negative optics, the group’s decision came just after Bevin drew mockery from Democrats by stopping by the Kentucky Democratic Party’s headquarters to complain to a receptionist about the sign the party had outside.
In late September, just hours after Bevin’s campaign announced that presidential candidate and junior Kentucky U.S. Sen. Rand Paul would campaign for the gubernatorial candidate, Bevin went on Kentucky Sports Radio and said he would support retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson over Paul in the presidential race.
Paul still campaigned with Bevin the following Saturday, but the crowd in Frankfort was sparse.
And despite McConnell’s efforts to help his one-time nemesis, Bevin’s running mate, Jenean Hampton, declined to say if she thought McConnell should resign as majority leader when she was asked in October.
Bevin will be sworn in as the next governor on Dec. 8.
Sam Youngman: (502) 875-3793. Twitter: @samyoungman. Blog: bluegrasspolitics.bloginky.com