Once the ultimate political outsider, Louisville businessman Matt Bevin became the second Republican Kentucky governor in four decades Tuesday, defeating Democratic Attorney General Jack Conway.
With all of the state’s 120 counties reporting, Bevin led with 525 percent to 43.8 percent for Conway and four percent for independent Drew Curtis.
Bevin, a native of New Hampshire who served in the U.S. Army and became a multi-millionaire in the financial industry, seemed to have had his brief political career ended last spring when he failed in a Republican primary challenge to the Kentucky’s senior U.S. Senator, Mitch McConnell.
And, even in this race, he was the underdog – polls up through the last weekend of the campaign showed Bevin trailing Conway by an average of five percentage points.
Historically, there has been a marked contrast between the way Kentuckians vote in elections for statewide offices and elections for president and Congress.
The Republican Party owns Kentucky when it comes to federal elections. Both U.S. Senators – McConnell and presidential candidate Rand Paul – are Republicans, as are all but one of the six members of the U.S. House.
Kentucky has voted for the Republican candidate for president in seven of the past 10 elections – the exceptions being Jimmy Carter in 1976 and Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996. It is probably no coincidence that both Carter and Clinton were Southerners.
And, perhaps most significantly, President Obama’s approval rating in the state is very low, hovering between 30 and 35 percent in most polls.
But Kentuckians seem to like electing Democrats to state offices, particularly governor. Only one of the past nine governors has been a Republican – Ernie Fletcher, and he lasted only one term.
In Bevin and Conway, Kentuckians were choosing between two candidates who have been through some bruising political battles in recent years.
Virtually no one in Kentucky knew Bevin when he decided to challenge then-Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell in the 2014 GOP primary.
But Bevin attracted the attention of the tea party movement – not just in Kentucky, but nationally. The tea party movement looked to Bevin to score an upset win over McConnell, the ultimate GOP establishment figure.
A loss by McConnell would have been a major embarrassment to the GOP nationally, but he ended up beating Bevin with 60 percent of the vote.
Bevin came back this year to run in a five-candidate field of GOP gubernatorial candidates. He ended up winning by a scant 83 votes over Agriculture Commissioner James Comer.
But there were fears that the close primary and Bevin’s battle with McConnell would split the party going into the general election.
Conway has had his ups-and-downs too.
In 2010, Rand Paul of Bowling Green – son of the former Texas congressman and Libertarian candidate for president Ron Paul – turned the Kentucky GOP upside down by beating the former Secretary of State, Trey Grayson, in a Senate primary.
He then went on to defeat Conway in a bitter election.
Bevin and his wife have nine children, including several from Ethiopia they adopted.
With 66 percent of the counties reporting, it was not yet clear if the Democrats would keep the attorney general’s office.
In other statewide offices:
Democrat Andy Beshear, son of the out-going governor, Steve Beshear, had a slim lead of only 1,109 votes over Republican Whitney Westerfield for attorney - a race which could end in a recount.
For secretary of state, Democratic incumbent Alison Lundergan Grimes defeated Republican Stephen Knipper 51 percent to 49 percent.
Republican Mike Harmon was elected auditor over the Democratic incumbent, Adam Edelen by four percentage points.
Republican Allison Ball easily won the treasurer's race, with 61 percent of the vote to Democrat Rick Nelson's 39 percent.