POLITICS
05/20/2015 11:05 am ET Updated May 20, 2015

Kentucky GOP Gubernatorial Primary Too Close To Call

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Businessman Matt Bevin led Kentucky Agricultural Commissioner James Comer by just 83 votes with all the precincts reporting in the state's Republican gubernatorial primary Tuesday night.

Bevin's lead of less than one-tenth of a percentage point out of the more than 214,000 votes cast led Comer to declare his intent to request a recanvass, meaning election officials will check printed vote totals against figures sent to the state's Board of Elections. The secretary of state's office announced that a recanvass will be conducted May 28. If Comer demands a full recount, the state's law requires him to post a bond to pay for the cost.

The other two candidates in the party, businessman and former Louisville Councilman Hal Heiner and former state Supreme Court Justice Will T. Scott, conceded earlier in the night.

Waiting in the wings is the Democratic nominee, Attorney General Jack Conway, who comfortably won his own race Tuesday. History is on his side: 22 of the state's 28 governors since 1900 have been Democrats.

The governorship is up for grabs because the Democratic incumbent, Steve Beshear, is term-limited. Since the state legislature is split -- Democrats have held onto the House, while Republicans have the Senate -- the stakes are particularly high for Republicans hoping to gain more control over the legislative and executive branches.

The Republican candidates' four-way race has been called one of the dirtiest in the Bluegrass State's history. In recent weeks, it was marked by domestic abuse allegations leveled against Comer by a former girlfriend, Marilyn Thomas. Comer vociferously denied the allegations and accused Heiner's campaign of spreading them.

Heiner and Comer were considered the early favorites. Comer is the only current executive officeholder of the field, while Heiner's personal wealth allowed him to outspend his competitors on television advertisements. But as the abuse allegations came to light, Bevin pitched himself as the conservative alternative.

Thomas' allegations characterized Comer as a physically and mentally abusive boyfriend who controlled and threatened Thomas and her family when the two dated in the 1990s and were students at Western Kentucky University. Certain elements of Thomas' story were confirmed by two of her former college roommates. Heiner has denied that his campaign was involved in spreading the story -- but after learning a blogger who had written about the allegations had been in contact with the husband of the person running for lieutenant governor on his ticket, Heiner issued a statement saying, "I personally apologize to Jamie Comer if anyone associated with my campaign is involved."

While Democrats said the ugliness of the Republican primary benefited their side, Republicans insisted that it was unclear what impact, if any, the nastiness had on the race.

Though there was much discord among the Republicans concerning their personal backgrounds, the primary wasn't marked by significant policy differences: All four candidates opposed increasing education spending and the state's minimum wage. They also vowed they would dismantle Kynect, the state's health insurance exchange, although Kentucky has seen the nation's second-largest drop in the percentage of residents who are uninsured.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) crushed Bevin in last year's primary for McConnell's seat. Bevin garnered just 35 percent of the vote, compared to McConnell's 60 percent. If the primary race is called for Bevin, it remains to be seen whether the state's Republican establishment will coalesce around him for the general election, given the bitter nature of last year's race, during which establishment groups strongly supported McConnell and tea party groups backed Bevin. In that race, Bevin also came under criticism for speaking to a pro-cockfighting rally.

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