May 26, 2015 - The primary of May 19, 2015 ended in a statistical tie between the top two Republican vote getters. Contrary to pundit predictions, the top two were Matt Bevin and James Comer. Only 83 votes separate the two candidates. Comer asked for a recanvass of the numbers. Based upon the result of county clerks he and his team will then decide whether to ask for a recount.
A recanvass is conducted at no cost to the challenger. In this age of electronic voting and machine counties, clerks will simply check the numbers on their printouts against the numbers they sent to the State Board of Elections. The more elaborate recount require funds from the requesting party - generally the challenger.
Bevin bested Comer by 83 votes out of 214,187 votes cast. The Courier Journal figured GOP turnout at 17.3%. (See county map) As dismal as that sounds, it exceeded pre-election estimates of 10%.
Matt Bevin, often called a darling of the Tea Party, won counties in a chain along the northern tier of the state. Northern Kentucky, a bastion of Republicans, went to Bevin. One Tea Party member told NPR that all the talk at Northern Kentucky Tea Party meetings was about Bevin. That's where the excitement was for angry conservatives living along the Ohio River.
Jefferson County predictably went for native son Hal Heiner. Most of south central and far western Kentucky went to Comer. Former Kentucky Supreme Court Justice and Pike County native Will T. Scott carved out six counties in far Eastern Kentucky for himself. Not near enough for a victory, but more than enough to tilt the scales away from a man that reputedly is not in the good graces of powerful Eastern Kentucky Rep. Hal Rogers.
Some pundits also credit Comer's poor showing in Eastern Kentucky to his cooperation in the prosecution of his predecessor, Richie Farmer, an Eastern Kentucky and former UK basketball star. Heiner also was the beneficiary of Comer's running afoul of the powers that be in Appalachia, winning seven counties in southeastern Kentucky. As Al Cross said on election night, it was a case of doing the right thing and being punished for it.
Comer's strategy was always to do very well in rural areas and hang in the top three in urban centers. That strategy fell apart with the surprise appearance of an old girlfriend claiming that while in college Comer abused her and assisted her in obtaining an abortion.
The accusation, coming within weeks of the election, put Comer on the defensive. Older voters, especially older women, were the most aggrieved by the report. Women are consistent voters and losing their faith at the last minute was a body blow to the campaign.
Hal Heiner's team, alleged to be the source of the last minute revelation, didn't profit from their involvement. Heiner's repeated denials of involvement melted away when he went on television to bring up Comer's misdeeds. The brush that painted Comer splashed back on Heiner.
Like a Derby horse seeing the two leaders concentrating on each other and not the race, Bevin recognized the break and went for it. Bevin's ad featuring a juvenile food fight between Comer and Heiner was beautifully timed to take advantage of voter disgust with the whole mess. Bevin distinguished himself as above such doin's and the grown up in the room. The strategy worked.
Whether Republican voters verbalized it or not, Bevin offered them a choice between the Frankfort insider, Comer, former legislator and present government official, and Heiner, the big city guy with big city money and out of state backers. They rose to his bait and took it.
Except for an early bump for Hal Heiner, pollsters called the race a toss up almost from the beginning. As always in analyzing modern politics, who was getting what money from where was the focus of the experts. It looked like Hal Heiner, a popular Louisville realtor who came close to beating Jefferson County Judge Greg Fischer for his job, would be the man with the cash and the backers to overwhelm the competition.
Heiner, the beneficiary of super pac money spent on his behalf and the rumored support of fellow Jefferson Countian Senator Mitch McConnell was seen as the early favorite. Heiner and his allies saw Commissioner of Agriculture James Comer as the man to beat.
Matthew Bevin, the out of state businessman, did poorly his last time out of the political gate. He suffered a bruising loss when he took on the most powerful politician in the state. Bevin and his supporters saw other long serving Washington politicians taken out in the primary by challengers of their own party. Surely, the Minority Leader of the Senate, a man with an over 50% negative rating, was ripe to be plucked from D. C.
Challenging Mitch McConnell in the primary turned out to be a lesson in "that's how it's done, son," Earnest and naive, Bevin was no match for McConnell. Let other old timers fall to challengers, McConnell was not going to be one of them. He went after Bevin and thoroughly discredited him with the rank and file Republican voter. The final tally had McConnell over Bevin by 3:1.
The loss did not teach Bevin to fight dirty. It taught him to stay in the game quietly and organize, organize, organize. The Tea Party, abandoned by Karl Rove when the lure of super pac money came along, remains a vibrant force in some areas of the state. Places like Northern Kentucky, urban, conservative and resentful that they were shunted aside when the big boys came to play.
Despite the super pac, despite the tacit endorsement of Mitch McConnell, despite the popularity of the first agriculture commissioner to visit every county in Kentucky, Tea Party conservatives rallied their troops and showed up on May 19th to give their guy the win.
Unless lightning strikes and Comer is declared the winner of the GOP primary, Matt Bevin will face Jack Conway in the fall. The presumptive Democratic heir to the governor's throne will have a fight on his hands. Bevin is a man who is a patient and increasingly canny political player.