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FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Kentucky's Republican nominee for governor could be in limbo for weeks following a close primary, but either possible winner will offer voters a stark contrast to Democrat Jack Conway in a rare off-year election.
Louisville investment banker Matt Bevin leads state Agriculture Commissioner James Comer by 83 votes. On Wednesday, Comer asked the Secretary of State's office for a recanvass, a review of all voting machines and absentee ballots from all precincts in the state's 120 counties. That process by law would not start until May 28.
The winner will set up a race for an open governor's seat in one of the few Southern states not controlled by Republicans. Democrats control five of the six statewide offices and have an eight-seat majority in the state House of Representatives. Democrats have won nine of the last 10 elections for governor. The Republican who won, Ernie Fletcher, lost re-election and was indicted amid allegations over his hiring practices.
The Republican primary was unusually close as two of the four candidates used their personal wealth to keep the race tight throughout the four-month campaign. Hal Heiner used $4.2 million of his own money to vastly outspend everyone in the race, but he finished third with 27 percent of the vote. Bevin gave his campaign more than $1 million, on top of the $5 million he raised and spent last year challenging U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell in the Senate primary.
The candidates agreed on all the major issues, including repealing the Common Core educational standards, dismantling the state's health insurance exchange and refusing to comply with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's new emission standards for coal-fired power plants. That forced the race to focus on the candidates' character, with Comer facing allegations from a former college girlfriend that he abused her, Heiner fending off accusations that he campaigned dirty by spreading those abuse allegations and Bevin defending himself for not paying some property taxes on time.
But Bevin and Comer will have plenty of issues to disagree about with Conway. And Conway, the two-term attorney general, did not even wait for the polls to close on Tuesday before firing his first shot at Bevin.
Speaking to reporters in Frankfort shortly before 7 p.m., Conway referenced the recent debate where Bevin cited a federal study noting that the Head Start program that provides education to low-income families of preschoolers has little impact beyond the third grade, adding: "We spent $170 billion on something that after the age of 9 serves no purpose."
"I rolled my eyes at that one," said Conway, who has promised to expand preschool education in Kentucky. "I'm looking forward to debating issues like that."
The Republicans, meanwhile, are looking forward to debating Conway on his opposition to "right-to-work" laws. The law would ban companies from requiring their employees to join a labor union. The laws have become the latest battleground among states vying for large manufacturing centers. Kentucky is home to two large automakers: General Motors, which is unionized, and Toyota, which is not. But Swedish automaker Volvo recently picked South Carolina over Kentucky to build its new plant that would hire an estimated 4,000 people, and Republicans have blamed the refusal to pass a right-to-work law as the reason the state missed out.
"This is a litmus test, and company after company passes us by because we have been now and are the only state remaining in the South that has not passed right to work legislation," Bevin said during his speech Tuesday night following the election results.
Twenty-five states have passed right-to-work laws, according to the National Right To Work Legal Defense Foundation. In Kentucky, at least 12 counties have passed local right-to-work ordinances, the first such laws in the country at the local level. They are being challenged in courts by labor unions. Conway, as attorney general, has issued an opinion saying the counties don't have the authority to pass such laws.
Tuesday, Conway said his top priority would be "good paying jobs," while arguing a Republican governor's policies would hurt Kentucky's "hard working families."