Washington (CNN)Matt Bevin, the tea party favorite who lost bitterly to Mitch McConnell in 2014, claimed victory Tuesday over his opponent, James Comer, who refused to concede in the expensive and nasty fight for the Republican nomination for governor of Kentucky.
Kentucky GOP gubernatorial primary in dead heat after polls close
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Only 83 votes separated Bevin and Comer with all precincts reporting, according to unofficial results from The Associated Press. Comer called for a recanvass of the vote late Tuesday evening, but pledged to support Bevin if the results held.
"We've gone through a lot together in this race, and you never stopped fighting until the last vote was counted," Comer said. "Whoever is the winning when this re-canvass is finished, I can make you one promise: We're going to elect a Republican governor in November."
A surprise candidate who was once considered a political hanger-on, Bevin managed to last in a race defined by outside groups with ties to the Koch brothers and the donor network organized by conservative powerbroker Karl Rove. Super PACs and political nonprofits went to war in the Bluegrass State, firing off negative ads and fueling personal attacks.
In a year with few elections, the Kentucky off-year race could prove to be a harbinger of what elections will look like next year as outside groups drive more and more of the political narrative.
The final weeks of the nominating campaign featured one leading candidate, Comer, the agriculture commissioner, fighting back allegations of domestic abuse pushed indirectly by the campaign of Hal Heiner, a former Louisville metro councilman. And as they quarreled, Bevin -- most well known for refusing to endorse McConnell after losing to him badly in the Senate race last year -- survived.
"The question ultimately comes down to who can take us to where we collectively want to go," Bevin said to his supporters. "I look forward to the fact that we will offer up what we believe is the best vision to take Kentucky forward."
As part of the re-canvass, election officials will effectively double check the math, the first step in a potentially long process undertaken by the Comer campaign to contest the results. Bevin and Comer each won about 33% of the Republican vote, with Heiner earning 27% respectively, according to The Associated Press. A fourth candidate, Will Scott, captured about 7% of the vote.
"The outcome of this election is not what we had hoped for, not what we had worked for," Heiner said, conceding to Bevin before Comer surged in late precincts. "While we're disappointed, I ask you all to stay involved. Support the Republican Party."
Bevin, a highly-touted businessman flooded with money from the right during his run again McConnell, only filed the paperwork for his bid two hours before the deadline.
Either he or Comer will face Democratic attorney general Jack Conway in November in a state that has elected Democrats routinely to the governor's mansion. As the Republican contest devolved into chaos, Kentucky Democrats seemed gleeful that the salacious charges and negative spending could batter the eventual candidate enough to make a Conway win in November even easier.
"Jack's victory tonight shows that the Democratic Party is united behind his campaign, while Kentucky Republicans are deeply divided," Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, the chair of the Democratic Governors Association, said in a statement after Conway easily won his primary.
Despite McConnell's orbit sharply disliking Bevin, neither the Senate Republican leader nor presidential candidate Sen. Rand Paul chose to directly sway the race. Former aides to McConnell lashed out against Bevin during the primary contest, but on Wednesday, a McConnell spokesman said the Senator himself planned to endorse the eventual Republican nominee, which looks to be Bevin.
Before Comer's rise, Paul himself congratulated Bevin on his "victory."
"Congratulations to @MattBevin. I look forward to helping him become Governor!"
Paul later deleted the tweet.