Lt. Gov. Daniel Mongiardo said Wednesday he supports Attorney General Jack Conway, ending weeks of questions about whether Mongiardo would endorse the man who narrowly beat him in the Democratic U.S. Senate primary.
The question now: What does the endorsement mean in Conway's tough race against Republican nominee Rand Paul?
Observers had different answers Wednesday.
Several said Mongiardo's move will help end the continuing speculation about his support for Conway, and why he hadn't endorsed Conway earlier. Those questions had become a subplot in the general election — one that Republicans were glad to see.
"That endorsement has the potential to add a lot of momentum to the campaign," said House Majority Leader Rocky Adkins, D-Sandy Hook. "It will help unify and it will help heal wounds."
Conway beat Mongiardo, a Hazard surgeon, by less than 1 percent of the votes cast.
Party unity is a must in what looks to be a tough year for Democrats because of the shaky economy, the growing federal deficit and President Barack Obama's unpopularity among many voters, observers said.
"I think it's a fairly significant development," said Donald A. Gross, a political science professor at the University of Kentucky. "They need a united Democratic Party."
The value of the endorsement will depend in part on what Mongiardo does to help Conway going forward, several people said.
The more Mongiardo works to motivate his supporters to back Conway, "the more effective his endorsement will be," said former Gov. Paul Patton, now president of Pikeville College.
Patton noted that Mongiardo has many supporters in his home region of Eastern Kentucky, where he beat Conway.
Mongiardo also beatConway in conservative, rural Western Kentucky. Polls have shown Paul leading Conway in that region, so Mongiardo could help Conway make up ground there.
There was a collective yawn among Republicans about Mongiardo's endorsement.
Mongiardo created doubt about his support for Conway by waiting so long to endorse him, and it's too late to erase that doubt, several Republicans said.
"I think they're a day late and a dollar short," said Bryan Mills, chairman of the Laurel County Republican Party.
Though some supporters of the man Paul beat, Secretary of State Trey Grayson, remain cool toward Paul, the Republicans signaled efforts to move past the divisive primary just days afterward.
The party held a rally in Frankfort that featured Paul, Grayson and U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, who supported Grayson.
In contrast, more than two months went by before Mongiardo said publicly he supported Conway.
Some in the GOP said the endorsement didn't seem particularly strong when it finally did come. Mongiardo made the announcement in a news release that endorsed "Democratic candidates on the ticket this fall," including Conway.
"Some have speculated whether or not I would support our party's United States Senate nominee Jack Conway. Let me be clear. While I am an independent Kentucky Democrat who, like many Kentuckians, don't always agree with the policies advocated by the politicians in Washington, I strongly believe in our party's core Democratic principles," Mongiardo said.
Mongiardo said he would not speak as scheduled on Saturday at the Fancy Farm picnic, the traditional start of the fall campaign season.
There has been talk in Democratic circles that Mongiardo was nursing hard feelings toward Conway because Conway did not make good on a pledge to pay off Mongiardo's leftover primary election debt of $77,000.
However, Allison Haley, spokeswoman for Conway, said there was never a deal for Conway to pay Mongiardo's debt.
Kim Geveden, who managed Mongiardo's campaign, said that his endorsement "has never been for sale" and that Conway did not give or offer Mongiardo money.
Geveden said the close primary loss was difficult for Mongiardo, who felt he let down a lot of people. That's why it took so long to endorse Conway, he said.
Conway said in a statement he was honored to get Mongiardo's endorsement.
Paul's spokesman, Ryan Hogan, said in a statement that Paul will keep working to pull in votes from Democrats who supported Mongiardo.
"Dan Mongiardo may be giving his belated endorsement (to) his fellow party member, but conservative Democrats do not have a candidate who supports their values in Jack Conway," the statement said.