In his first public appearance since Tuesday night's election, presumptive Republican gubernatorial nominee Matt Bevin got a glimpse of the trouble he might have uniting his party in coming months.
Bevin wrapped up his remarks Thursday afternoon to the Women Republicans of Central Kentucky by talking about how he has even heard from several Democrats who told him they will work for his campaign. Then he opened it up to questions.
Patrick Moores of Lexington stood in Sal's Chophouse and complimented Bevin on his likely victory, then asked Bevin the question that many Republicans have asked about him for a year.
"I've had several friends tell me yesterday, on the Republican side, that they're very concerned about even voting for you," Moores said. "And one of the things that sticks in their craw still is your not supporting (Mitch) McConnell after the primary last year, coming out actively in support of him, and they're saying, 'We're not going to support him (Bevin).'"
Moores, who supported Hal Heiner in the primary, told Bevin that his "mind was greatly changed" by Bevin's speech on election night.
"But my concern is, have you got a plan to bring these Republicans back?" Moores asked.
Bevin has clearly tried to begin winning over some of the Republican establishment, passing on regret for being unable to attend the luncheon on behalf of U.S. Rep. Andy Barr and KC Crosbie, Heiner's running mate and one of three Kentuckians on the Republican National Committee.
But Bevin, as he has since last November, blamed the media for creating a perception that he didn't support U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell after losing to him in the primary last year. Although Bevin repeatedly declined to publicly endorse McConnell, he argued that he did work hard for the Republican ticket last fall.
"This is what's important to understand: Take a look at actions and not words," Bevin said. "There are people who have worked very hard to create the perception that I did not provide support. That is entirely untrue."
He added: "You will not find a person in the state of Kentucky, not one, who ever heard me say anything other than that they should support the ticket from top to bottom, from Mitch McConnell on down. Not one person. It didn't exist."
There was, however, a long list of McConnell staffers and supporters who unceremoniously welcomed Bevin to the gubernatorial race with a long list of unflattering quotes about Bevin that Democrats have gleefully circulated this week.
Bevin said that "the narrative that was spun was made in large measure to move copy." He encouraged the people in the room to ask Larry Cox, a Heiner adviser and a longtime top aide to McConnell, who saw Bevin speak last year at a Lincoln Day dinner in LaRue County.
Cox, Bevin said, would attest that Bevin had worked hard to support McConnell.
But Cox told the website The Daily Beast this month that Bevin's decision to get into the gubernatorial race was "selfish, angry, antagonistic."
"If I get a big surprise and Bevin is (the) nominee, I don't know what happens with any kind of party cohesion," Cox said.
Bevin dismissed the feud as an invention of the media, but Moores said after the luncheon that the divide was very real and that Bevin needs to make an effort to win back the Republicans who were "run off" by his behavior during and after last year's primary.
Bevin seemed largely unconcerned about any lingering hard feelings, saying that "there will always be people who ... are upset, and they're petty and they're angry, and they have their axes to grind for whatever reason. That's OK. Guess what? That's human nature."
"So for those folks who can't get over it or are upset, guess what? Luckily, they represent a tiny, tiny fraction of the people who will vote in the general election," he said.
For his part, McConnell said Wednesday through an aide that he will endorse the Republican nominee after the election winner is made official.
Bevin encouraged Republicans in the room, who greeted him with a smattering of applause, to "come together to the degree you can."
"If you cannot come together and support our candidacy, that's OK," he said. "I mean, this is America."
Of course, Bevin is not yet officially the Republican Party's nominee. Agriculture Commissioner James Comer, who on election night came up with 83 fewer votes than Bevin, has requested a recanvass. That retabulation of vote totals is set for May 28.
Bevin said he has been in contact with Comer, telling the small crowd that he and Comer "are agreed, as are most folks, it won't probably change anything, but it will just affirm that the numbers are accurate."
"I encouraged him to go ahead and do it," Bevin said. "Because, I'll be very honest, especially for those of you that were supporters of the Comer ticket, you think about this: Had it been us, had we been down 83 (votes), we'd have done the exact same thing. It's the right thing to do. It's the fair thing to do. It's the honorable thing to do with respect to those that supported his campaign."