GOP primary for governor in Kentucky too close to call

Kentucky’s volatile Republican primary for governor ended in a virtual tie Tuesday night as only a handful of votes separated Matt Bevin and James Comer, the latter of whom said he will seek a recanvass.

Republicans Hal Heiner and Will T. Scott conceded early, and it appeared Bevin was headed to an improbable victory following his lopsided loss to U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell in last year’s primary. But Comer surged ahead by a narrow margin following returns from the western part of the state, including large margins in Warren County, where Republican presidential candidate Rand Paul lives.

The Secretary of State’s office was unsure how many ballots from the state’s overseas voters, including soldiers, came in by the 6 p.m. deadline. The court ordered an extension on the deadline for another 11 days because of a problem with an outside vendor. But that extension applied only to 12 specific ballots.

There is no runoff election in Kentucky, and no automatic recounts. State law allows for re-canvassing only if a county clerk or a county board of elections notices a discrepancy or if a candidate makes a written request to the Secretary of State.

Republican state Sen. Max Wise told a jubilant crowd at Comer’s election night party that things looked “real good.” Bevin supporters remained glued to the TV watching returns, alternating between cheers and sad faces as the last few hundred votes came in. Just before 7 p.m., Bevin thanked supporters for coming and said: “Hopefully it will be fun. We’ll see.”

None of the candidates have enjoyed the campaign, with Comer calling it “the dirtiest campaign that I’ve ever witnessed in Kentucky history.” Comer spent the last two weeks fighting allegations from Marilyn Thomas, his former college girlfriend, that he emotionally and physically abused her while the two dated at Western Kentucky University more than two decades ago.

But Comer, the state’s agriculture commissioner, forcefully denied the allegations and used them to paint Hal Heiner, one of his leading opponents, as a dirty campaigner willing to do anything to get elected.

That strategy worked for voters like Karen Dowell, a 50-year-old stay at home mom in Lawrenceburg. She said she heard about the abuse allegations but did not research them much. In the end, she voted for Comer because she knew him. He is the only candidate in the race to hold a statewide office, winning the agriculture commissioner election in 2012.

“He was more familiar to me,” she said.

As Comer and Heiner fought, that left Bevin, with the $5 million and name recognition he earned form his failed U.S. Senate bid the year before, as the landing spot for disaffected Republican voters. He ran a TV ad with actors portraying Comer and Heiner sitting at a children’s table throwing food at each other.

Whoever wins will have to unify a state Republican Party torn apart by the raucous primary. Heiner conceded around 8:40 p.m., as votes in the western part of the state were still being tallied and Bevin was ahead. Heiner told a sullen-faced crowd of his supporters in a reception hall at the Parklands of Floyds Fork that he called Bevin, congratulated him and pledged his support in the general election.

Heiner did not mention Comer in his concession speech, but he urged Republicans to unite.

“While we are disappointed, I ask you to all stay involved. Support the Republican party,” he said. “It is time to move forward. Kentucky needs you, it needs your enthusiasm, your passion for good government.”

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