The Kentucky Gubernatorial primary is another blow to Mitch McConnell

In case you missed the primary battle in Kentucky last night, there was enough excitement in the GOP governor’s race to fill the pages of politicos’ notebooks for quite a while in an odd numbered year. You probably remember Matt Bevin, who was a big Tea Party favorite in his challenge to Mitch McConnell in the 2014 Senate primary but was rather thoroughly stomped on election day. Well, he’s still in the game and hoping to become Governor instead. He found himself in a wild ride late into the night, after first having been declared the winner by the local media, but then seeing the declaration taken back following an eleventh hour surge from the western reaches of the state for his opponent, James Comer.

The race for the Republican gubernatorial election went down to the wire and then some Tuesday night.

After 214,187 votes were counted, Louisville businessman Matt Bevin held an 83-vote lead over Commissioner of Agriculture James Comer, but Comer said late Tuesday night that he owed it to his supporters to ask for a recanvass.

According to the secretary of state’s office, a recanvass will be conducted at 9 a.m. May 28. In a recanvass, printed vote totals are checked against figures sent to the state Board of Elections. No individual votes are actually recounted.

I’m not even sure about that 83 vote count either. I’ve seen a few different numbers floating around this morning, but they all have Bevin with a tiny lead over Comer. If the only other action is a “recanvass” as described above, it’s not unlikely that Bevin will be the nominee. If it goes to a full recount of individual ballots, well… it’s going to be a long spring.

For their part, the Democrats broke the mold and essentially ushered in an uncontested nominee in the person of state Attorney General Jack Conway.

Attorney General Jack Conway has easily won the Democratic nomination for Kentucky governor.

Conway faced little opposition in Geoff Young, a former state engineer who did not raise money and was shunned by the state party. It was the first time in four decades that Kentucky Democrats have not fielded a competitive primary, allowing Conway to skip dozens of candidate forums and raise more than $2.3 million.

The Democrats probably feel pretty good about the situation at this early stage. The state GOP is being painted as being in turmoil with all of this infighting, while Conway was able to cruise through his race without spending a lot of cash. Also, the Democrats have history on their side, given how rarely Republicans have held the governor’s mansion there.

The real loser in all of this, though, may be senior Senator Mitch McConnell. He’s no fan of Bevin’s (obviously) and was in Comer’s corner, as was Rand Paul. As Dave Weigel explains, Bevin is an inconvenient thorn in the side of the party establishment and they were probably hoping that he would just go away.

The tumult, which is likely to lead to a recount, is no help to the state’s powerful Republicans. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell defeated Bevin in a 2014 primary. Senator Rand Paul, who announced his presidential bid in the same hotel where Bevin hoped to be accepting the nomination, is hoping for a Republican governor to take office in Frankfort and diffuse questions about whether Paul can seek two offices at once.

Bevin was not supposed to win the primary. Kentucky Republicans, who have held the governor’s office for only four of the last 40 years, had hoped that Comer would consolidate support and keep someone like Bevin out of the race. Businessman Hal Heiner, who’d narrowly lost a race for mayor of Democratic Louisville, spent early and heavily to build up his name ID, forcing Comer supporters to burn up cash.

If McConnell had as much influence at home as he does in the Senate this probably wouldn’t have been close. But now reality must impinge on the theoretical discussion. Assuming that Bevin holds on to his lead, Mitch, Rand Paul and the rest of the state party are going to need to find a way to stand by his side and show their support in the general election. But that might be a rather bitter pill to swallow. NBC News assembled this little walk down memory lane as a reminder of how the Varsity Team has treated Bevin over the course of these battles.

  • Former McConnell Chief of Staff Josh Holmes: “If Matt Bevin had moved to a state where he had a better shot at being elected to office as a Democrat, he would articulate the values of liberalism with the same conviction he now talks about conservatism.” (Louisville Courier-Journal, May 6, 2015);
  • More Holmes: “Kentucky Republicans have a way of working through primary battles to reunite in the general election. Of course, there are certainly some candidates who are easier to reunite behind than others.” (Politico, May 16, 2015);
  • Even more Holmes: “I think Bevin disqualified himself with most Republican voters when he refused to endorse McConnell after the primary. It said more about his willingness to put himself before the party and the commonwealth than anything anybody else could possibly say.” (Lexington Herald-Leader, Jan. 28, 2015);
  • Former McConnell Campaign Manager Jesse Benton: “Mitch was a gentleman and extended several olive branches, but Bevin acted like a petulant child and slapped the hand of friendship,” Benton said. “Republicans should not, and will not, take Bevin seriously.” (Lexington Herald-Leader, Jan. 28, 2015).

Talk about awkward. Still, we’re talking about American politics and stranger bedfellows than these are easy to find. Bevin has been nothing but gracious toward Rand Paul and certainly has his own fair share of friends at the state and county level. They would all rather see Bevin in the governor’s office than Conway (well… nearly all of them anyway) and they’re just going to have to find a way to live together until the fall.