Kentucky Republican Gubernatorial Primary One in a Litany of Whisker-Close Elections in U.S. History

05/27/2015 02:15 pm ET | Updated May 27, 2016

In the recent Kentucky Republican Gubernatorial Primary, Louisville businessman Matt Bevin was ahead by just 83 votes out of over 214,000 votes cast. His opponent, Agricultural Secretary James Comer, requested a recanvising of the election.

Kentucky voters are used to close elections. In 1998, Jim Bunning quipped: "It's great to have a landslide victory" after winning an open U.S. Senate seat by just 6,766 votes out of 1,145,414 cast. In 2004, Bunning was re-elected by just 22,652 votes out of 1,724,362 votes.

It seems that in every election cycle there is one election where the results are breathtakingly close. While most Congressional elections are easy victories for the incumbents, there are always a few elections where the result is not decided until weeks, even months after election night. This past cycle, the closest election occurred in Arizona, where Republican Martha McSally ousted Democratic incumbent Ron Barber by just 167 votes out of 219,351 cast. Following a protracted recount process. Barber conceded the election to McSally about a month and a half after the election. Interestingly, just two years earlier, it was Barber who defeated McSally by just 1,402 votes out of 285,000 cast.

There was actually an election where one vote literally decided the winner of a statewide election. The closest Gubernatorial election ever recorded in U.S. history occurred in Massachusetts in 1839. At the time, a candidate was required to garner a majority of the votes to win the election. Otherwise, the State legislature would choose the winner. The legislature was controlled by the Whig Party, which would almost assuredly have voted to re-elect incumbent Governor Edward Everett, the Whig nominee.

However, his opponent, Democrat Marcus Morton, garnered 51,034 votes of 102,066 votes cast, giving Morton a majority by a single vote margin. Had just one vote switched, Morton would not have won the majority, and thus would have lost the election. Amazingly, the Secretary of the Commonwealth, H.A.S. Dearborn, a devoted Whig and Everett supporter, did not cast a vote. Neither did some members of the Whig high command, prompting Everett to bemoan: "A better mode of showing [their support] would have been to vote."

Similarly, in 1974, a U.S. Senate election in New Hampshire was decided by just two votes out of 223,363 votes cast. On Election Day, Republican Louis Wyman was declared the winner by just 355 votes. His Democratic opponent, John A. Durkin, subsequently asked for a recount. The recount showed Durkin had actually won the election by 10 votes. Wyman then asked for another recount.

This time it was Wyman who was the winner by a measly two votes. Undeterred, Drukin then appealed the election to the Democratically-controlled U.S. Senate. But the Senate could not resolve the dispute. Finally, after a seven-month deadlock, Wyman asked Durkin to run in a Special election. Durkin agreed.

The election garnered national attention because it was the only Congressional election during the off year. It became a referendum on the economic policies of President Gerald R. Ford. In fact, Ford participated in a 136-mile motorcade in the state five days prior to the election in a futile attempt to keep the seat in Republican hands. Durkin won the Special election by 27,000 votes.

South Dakota has been the epicenter of close elections. In 1962, George McGovern was elected to the U.S. Senate by just 597 votes out of 254,139 cast. In 1978, Tom Daschle was elected to the U.S. House by just 139 votes out of 129,227 votes. In 2002, South Dakota Democrat Tim Johnson was re-elected by just 524 votes out of 334,458 votes tabulated.

Close elections can alter the course of history. The 1948 election to the U.S. Senate of Lyndon B. Johnson illustrates this point. In 1941, Johnson lost a special election to fill the seat of the late U.S. Senator Morris Sheppard by just 1,311 votes out of 988,295 cast. In 1948, Johnson was on the other side of a photo finish, defeating former Governor Coke Stevenson by just 87 votes out of 988,395 cast.

Decades later, Louis Salas, who served as an elections judge in Jim Wells County, told author Robert Caro that he had certified 202 fraudulent ballots for Johnson, enough to give him the race. Johnson earned the alliterative moniker: "Landslide Lyndon." Because of that 87-vote victory, Johnson went to the U.S. Senate, and subsequently became exceedingly influential, as evinced by his meteoric rise to the top of the Senate hierarchy. Just four years into his Senate term, Johnson became Minority Leader. Two years later, he became Majority leader. In 1960, he was elected Vice President, and in 1963 he assumed the Presidency upon the death of President John F. Kennedy.

In 1994, U.S. Representative Newt Gingrich (R-GA) engineered a Republican take- over of the U.S. House, making him its first Republican Speaker in forty years. But Gingrich never would have gotten to that position had he been on the other side of a razor-thin election to his congressional seat just four years earlier. In 1990, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) did not view Gingrich as vulnerable, and thus did not fund the campaign of his Democratic opponent, David Worley. However, the DCCC underestimated the political skills of Worley. They undervalued concerns within the District that Gingrich was spending too much time advancing his national profile and not enough time on parochial issues. Startlingly, Gingrich defeated Worley by just 983 votes out of more than 155,000 votes cast.

Worley could have won the race, but the national Democrats did not fund his campaign. The following day, Gingrich averred to the New York Times that he got the message: "They [his constituents] want me to come home more often, to pay more attention to local issues, and I'm going to do it."

Many Americans are still reeling from the protracted and still disputed Presidential election of 2000, where Republican George W. Bush was certified by Florida Secretary of State Katharine Harris as the winner of the Florida Presidential election, and thus won the national election. Officially, Bush had just 597 more votes in the sunshine state out of more than six million votes cast in Florida.

In 1880, Republican James Garfield defeated Democrat Winfield S. Hancock in the popular vote by just 7,368 popular votes out of 9,217,410. However, in the Electoral College, the margin was much wider, with Garfield garnering 214 votes and Hancock mustering just 155 votes.

In the election of 1884, one solitary event might have been the difference in another close election. A few days prior to the 1884 Presidential election, Presbyterian Minister Samuel Burchard, a supporter of Republican Presidential nominee James G. Blaine, spoke before the Religious Bureau of the Republican National Committee of New York, where he excoriated the Democrats as the Party of "Rum, Romanticism, and Rebellion."

Blaine sat silently during this tirade and made no effort to disassociate himself from these volatile remarks. Unfortunately for the unsuspecting Blaine, many Irish voters took umbrage by the use of the word "rum," believing that the Minister was perpetuating a stereotype that Irish-Americans, who were mostly Democrats, were alcoholics. This galvanized the Irish vote against Blaine in the swing state of New York, where Democrat Grover Cleveland eked out a razor-thin victory, defeating Blaine by just 1,047 votes. New York proved to be the state that made the electoral difference in a very close Presidential election.

The race for the Republican Gubernatorial nomination in Kentucky will enter the annals of whisker-close elections in American history. When election results are this close, those who chose to sit on the electoral sidelines believing their vote would not make a difference, may view with much regret their reticence to participate in the electoral process.