Politics & Government

Too close to call: Matt Bevin leads James Comer by 83 votes; Comer calls for recanvass

Matt Bevin, left, and James Comer.
Matt Bevin, left, and James Comer.

The race for the Republican gubernatorial election went down to the wire and then some Tuesday night.

After 214,187 votes were counted, Louisville businessman Matt Bevin held an 83-vote lead over Commissioner of Agriculture James Comer, but Comer said late Tuesday night that he owed it to his supporters to ask for a recanvass.

According to the secretary of state's office, a recanvass will be conducted at 9 a.m. May 28. In a recanvass, printed vote totals are checked against figures sent to the state Board of Elections. No individual votes are actually recounted.

Bevin took the stage at his election-night gathering in Louisville at about 10:15 p.m., asking the crowd: "How about this race?"

Bevin, just one year removed from getting trounced in the Republican U.S. Senate primary, sounded a triumphant note even though the Associated Press had not yet called the race and Comer was pressing ahead with a recanvass. He noted that Comer, Hal Heiner and Will T. Scott had all called him, and he singled them out for praise despite the harsh words he had, especially for Heiner, in the heat of the campaign.

"My hat is off to all three of those gentlemen," Bevin said. "I have had terrific conversations with all three."

Comer said he called Bevin before addressing his supporters in Frankfort, and he promised to work hard for Bevin and a "united Republican Party" if the recanvass "doesn't work out."

"Whoever is the winner when this recanvass is finished, I can make you one promise: We're going to elect a Republican governor in November," Comer said.

Bevin appeared to be a lock to win the nomination early in the night, but Comer came from behind as Western Kentucky vote totals rolled in, briefly taking the lead at one point by 30 votes.

Heiner and Scott both called to congratulate Bevin early in the night, before Comer's comeback.

After spending about $5 million of his own money on the race, Heiner finished in third.

"This outcome is not what we had hoped for," Heiner said, pledging his support to Bevin and telling him "I need you to beat Jack Conway."

Scott also pledged his support to Bevin, saying he was looking forward to getting together with his rivals in the race and beginning to "heal these wounds."

"We've got to get together," Scott said. "I know all my colleagues in this race agree with it."

In his speech, Bevin, who hails from New Hampshire, made a plea for Kentuckians to join his effort, repeating again and again: "We are Kentucky."

"If you love Kentucky, we ask you to come on board because we are Kentucky," Bevin said.

After entering the race just hours before the candidate filing deadline in late January, Bevin overcame significant doubts and disdain from establishment Republicans.

He appeared to benefit from a bitter and personal battle between Heiner and Comer, cutting a path between both of them. Comer's college girlfriend accused him of abusing her during the early 1990s and Heiner's campaign became mired in controversy over its ties to a Lexington blogger who had long circulated rumors about the alleged abuse.

In what was perhaps the best ad of the primary, Bevin took to the airwaves in the closing weeks with "Food Fight," an ad that featured two actors playing the parts of Comer and Heiner, sitting at a children's table and throwing food at each other.

Promising "grown up" leadership, Bevin appears to have struck the right tone for voters who were turned off by the Comer-Heiner feud.

Comer, sounding dejected but promising to fight on, made vague references to the rough nature of the race in his speech Tuesday night.

"This has been a difficult election," Comer said. "We've gone through a lot together in this race and y'all stuck with us."

After his speech, Comer got emotional as he hugged supporters.

He told reporters that Heiner, Bevin and super PACs that worked against him probably outspent him by $10 million.

Comer said he will request a recanvass Wednesday morning. If the results show him gaining votes, he may ask for a full-fledged recount, Comer said.

Comer acknowledged that it may be tough to pick up enough votes to win.

"But 83 votes out of 200,000, that's not a big percentage," he said.

Comer said the abuse allegations, which he has flatly denied, helped Bevin.

"I think that he was the beneficiary of a lot of this mischief that took place in the last two weeks of the campaign," Comer said of Bevin. "History will show that that was probably one of the dirtiest tricks in the history of Kentucky politics."

Comer said maybe he should have held another news conference to deny the allegations and release more details. He did not specify what those would have been.

Talking to supporters at the Galt House in Louisville, Bevin offered congratulations to Democratic nominee and state Attorney General Jack Conway.

"We will have good civil discourse, I hope," Bevin said.

Speaking to reporters earlier in the evening, Conway said the fall race will be about which candidate has the best vision for Kentucky's future.

"This campaign is about jobs, jobs and better-paying jobs," he said. "How do we create them? How do we train for them? And I'm ready to get that debate started."

In his remarks, Bevin pledged to fight against Common Core education standards and fight for school choice, promising to go to war against federal government overreach and what he called burdensome regulations.

Bevin also repeated his promise to push for passage of right-to-work legislation and to "dismantle" the state's Kynect health insurance exchange by the end of 2016.

"We will have a very spirited discussion as it relates to health care in our state," he said. "Trust me on that."

Bevin relied heavily on his own fortune to kick off and sustain an aggressive campaign, showing signs from the beginning that he learned much from last year's bitter loss to McConnell.

After that loss, Bevin didn't endorse McConnell, drawing the eternal ire of those close to the Senate leader.

Now, it remains to be seen whether McConnell loyalists have forgiven Bevin for his 2014 slight and just how hard national Republicans will work for a candidate they long believed was their weakest chance at winning back the governor's mansion.

While Bevin has declined to characterize himself as a Tea Party candidate, he has long drawn fans from that side of the spectrum. Democrats are expected to portray him as too far right and too rigidly anti-government to represent all Kentuckians.

Kentucky Democratic Party Spokesman David Bergstein took aim at Bevin and Comer late Tuesday night.

"The brutal Republican primary slugfest that has been called the "nastiest race of 2015" is continuing — which will make it even harder for the eventual nominee to unify their fractured party," Bergstein said in a statement. "Here's what we know tonight: Republicans will eventually nominate Bevin — who Sen. McConnell's former top aide said 'can't be trusted and is essentially running to satisfy his ego' — or Comer, who won the award for worst TV clip of the primary when he failed to defend his vote supersizing his taxpayer-funded pension. Stay tuned."

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader

  Comments