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Too Close: Bevin Has Small Lead Over Comer but Wins Northern Kentucky Handily

In a thrilling race that saw the leader changing as the candidates approached the finish line, Louisville businessman Matt Bevin eked out a lead and will likely be the Republican nominee for Kentucky governor.

In unofficial results, with 99% of precincts reporting, Bevin led Agriculture Commissioner James Comer by under 100 votes with each candidate bagging 1/3 of the GOP electorate. At 9:43 p.m., Bevin had 70,479 votes to 70,396 for Comer.

At 10:02 p.m. Comer officially asked for a recanvass. He called Bevin, he said, and congratulated him for running an upstanding campaign and that if the recanvass does not go Comer's way, that he would support Bevin's campaign in the fall. "We have so many people that have worked so hard. We overcame so much money," Comer said. "We overcame some bad press with some newspapers in this state and I owe it to our supporters to ask for a recanvass."

Bevin, who was crushed by Senator Mitch McConnell in U.S. Senate primary last year, led for most of the night as results poured in, outpacing Comer and former Louisville Councilman Hal Heiner who spent much of the campaign focused on each other. Comer had been accused of abusing a former girlfriend and taking her to Louisville for an abortion while they were students at Western Kentucky University in the early 1990's. The abuse allegations surfaced after being pushed by a Lexington blogger who had contact with the Heiner campaign.

After months of polls that showed Heiner with a lead, Bevin overtook the field recently, a field that also included former Supreme Court Justice Will T. Scott who finished a distant fourth.

When Heiner, who spent $4 million of his own money on the campaign, conceded earlier in the evening with 27% of the vote, he congratulated Bevin on winning the nomination and urged the Party to rally around the nominee. An hour later, Comer ran up the scoreboard in western Kentucky counties and took the lead. As the final votes came in, however, Bevin was back on top by a small margin.

"How about this race?," said Bevin when he took to the podium to thank supporters in Louisville at 10:15 p.m. "For those of you in the media who thought Republican politics in the state of Kentucky was dead and boring, think again." Bevin said that he spoke with all three of his opponents and that each expressed their support.

Comer had hoped to add Northern Kentucky to his strategy for a victory by placing Kenton County State Senator Chris McDaniel on his ticket. Comer promised to put McDaniel in charge of the state budget, giving Northern Kentucky a stronger voice in the governor's mansion. The Comer-McDaniel ticket had the high profile support of Northern Kentucky leaders such as Kenton County Judge/Executive Kris Knochelmann, Republican legislators, and Covington City Commissioners Steve Frank and Jordan Huizenga, all of whom canvassed the region for the ticket over the weekend.

But Bevin easily won all three Northern Kentucky counties of Boone, Kenton, and Campbell. His victory spread to Gallatin, Grant, Carroll, Bracken, Robertson, and Owen Counties. Bevin scored 48% of the vote to Comer's 32% in Kenton, and 57% in Boone where both Heiner and Comer pulled in 19%. Bevin carried Campbell over Comer, 53% to 23%.

In fact, Bevin's support across 120 Kentucky counties touched nearly every corner. Heiner won Jefferson County (Louisville) big and carried some eastern Kentucky counties while Comer was strongest in western, central, and northeastern Kentucky. Late into the night, Bevin's lead was around 10,000 votes but Comer closed the gap with big wins in the western part of the state where he is from.

Scott carried his home Pike County and a couple other eastern Kentucky counties.

On the Democratic side, Attorney General Jack Conway accepted the Democratic nomination for governor just as the polls closed. He was joined in Frankfort by Democratic leaders and candidates after easily defeating Geoff Young by more than 57 percentage points.

"As Governor, my top priority will be jobs, jobs, and more good-paying jobs for hardworking Kentuckians across the Commonwealth," Conway said at the Democratic event. "(I'm) proud to be the Democratic nominee for Governor."

In an off-year election, the 2015 Kentucky Governor's race will be watched across the country. Montana Governor Steve Bullock, chairman of the Democratic Governors Association, pointed out the divisive primary that the Republicans faced in the Commonwealth while Conway stayed above the fray. “Jack’s victory tonight shows that the Democratic Party is united behind his campaign, while Kentucky Republicans are deeply divided," Bullock said in a statement. "The contrast this fall will be clear: Attorney General Conway is the right candidate with the right experience to be Kentucky’s next Governor.”

Kenton County resident and chairman of the Kentucky Democratic Party Patrick Highes said, “I congratulate Attorney General Jack Conway on his resounding victory – Kentucky Democrats are entering this general election unified and energized behind him. From cracking down on criminals, to taking on big special interests who were hurting consumers, Jack has a record of keeping his promises and delivering for Kentucky – and he is the only candidate in this race that Kentucky’s hardworking families can trust to move our state forward. Kentucky Democrats are looking forward to working harder than ever before to support Jack and Sannie’s campaign.” 

The Republican Governors Association also had something to say about Conway's nomination.

“Instead of standing up for Kentuckians, Jack Conway has spent the last several years supporting Barack Obama’s extreme liberal agenda which has hurt hard-working Kentucky families," said Executive Director Paul Bennecke in a statement. "So far in this campaign, Conway has offered only vague promises and no plan to make Kentucky more competitive. Instead, he’s supported Obama’s extreme agenda like Cap-and-Trade and Obamacare. His record is clear: Jack Conway puts Barack Obama first and Kentucky last. Bluegrass voters know they can do better than Jack Conway.”

In other races across the state:

Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes, fresh off her thrashing in the U.S. Senate race in November at the hands of Mitch McConnell, secured her re-nomination to return as Secretary of State, defeating opponent Charles Lovett, 74% to 26%. She will face Republican and former Erlanger City Councilman Steve Knipper who was unopposed for his party's nomination.

In a crowded five-way race, State Rep. Rick Nelson of Middlesboro won the Democratic nomination for Treasurer with 27% of the vote. He beat Louisville businessman Neville Blakemore (22%), former State Rep. Richard Henderson of Jeffersonville (20%), State Rep. Jim Glenn of Owensboro (19%), and Daniel Grossberg, a Louisville real estate agent (11%). On the Republican side, attorney Allison Ball won the nomination with 47% over former Fayette Co. Judge/Executive Jon Larson (31%), and State Rep. Kenny Imes (22%).

Whitney Westerfeld, the Republican State Senator from Hopkinsville, beat Lawrence County Attorney Michael Hogan, 53% to 47%. Westerfeld will face Democratic nominee Andy Beshear, son of Governor Steve Beshear, who ran unopposed.

Incumbent Auditor Adam Edelen was re-nominated by the Democrats without an opponent while the Republicans will field State Rep. Mike Harmon of Danville against him in the fall. 

Jean-Marie Lawson Spann of Bowling Green will be the Democratic nominee for Agriculture Commissioner and will face State Rep. Ryan Quarles of Georgetown who narrowly defeated State Rep. Richard Heath of Mayfield, with each candidate nearly bagging 50% of the vote.

-Michael Monks, editor & publisher

Top photo: Matt Bevin Center photo: Jack Conway