FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) -- James Comer conceded the governor's race in Kentucky on Friday, ending a tumultuous Republican primary and handing the nomination to Louisville businessman Matt Bevin.
In this Aug. 3, 2013 file photo, Louisville businessman Matt Bevin, the Senate primary election opponent of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky. speaks in in Fancy Farm, Ky. In the midst of a double-barreled re-election fight,McConnell is earning praise back home _ and from some of the most unlikely of corners _ for brokering of the deal that ended the partial government shutdown and averted a potential default on U.S. debt. (AP Photo/Stephen Lance Dennee)
In a morning news release, Comer said he called Bevin and conceded minutes after a Thursday review of the May 19 primary results showed Bevin maintained his 83-vote lead in one of the closest elections in state history. Comer delayed conceding publicly until the morning to give him time to contact some of his most important supporters.
Bevin has scheduled a 10 a.m. news conference at the Republican Party of Kentucky's headquarters along with the other Republican nominees in November's general election.
"Throughout the entire primary campaign, I grew to appreciate Matt Bevin's knowledge of the issues, his work ethic, and his morals. Matt ran a clean campaign which focused on the issues important to Kentuckians," Comer said. He predicted that Bevin will "stand up to the special interest groups" and fight corruption, and he offered Bevin his enthusiastic endorsement.
I called Matt Bevin yesterday to concede & congratulate him. I endorse Matt & pledge to help him win. Thx to #TeamComer 4 all the great work— James Comer (@KYComer) May 29, 2015
Comer's statement appeared to be a rebuke of Republican candidate Hal Heiner, whom Comer blamed for spreading rumors about him abusing a former college girlfriend. After months of whispers, Marilyn Thomas took her story public in a letter to the Courier-Journal, where she said Comer physically and emotionally abused her. Comer emphatically denied those allegations, and invoked them to rally his supporters while painting Heiner as a dirty campaigner.
On election night, it appeared Comer was headed toward a third place finish. Returns from his native western Kentucky propelled him briefly into the lead, but it wasn't enough to surpass Bevin.
"It is an honor to be the Republican nominee for Governor," Bevin said in a news release shortly after the recanvass results on Thursday. "I have tremendous respect for Commissioner Comer and am glad that we went through the recanvass process so that the integrity of our election was validated."
He pledged to bring his Blueprint for a Better Kentucky to the voters and said he looks forward to discussing the job creation plan.
The results resurrect Bevin's political career after his loss to U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell in last year's bitterly contested primary.
McConnell endorsed Bevin's candidacy Friday in a one-sentence news release from his Senate office: "I congratulate Matt Bevin on his victory and endorse him for governor." McConnell is skipping a state Republican Party dinner on Saturday, where Bevin is the keynote speaker, because he said he must return to Washington to prepare for a special Sunday session and try to avert the expiration of the Patriot Act.
Bevin had waited until the last day to file for governor and start another campaign that seemed destined to become another footnote in the state's Republican politics.
But with few endorsements, more than $1 million of his own money and a mostly volunteer staff, Bevin campaigned on the county Lincoln Day dinner circuit that had mostly shunned him last year and found a niche as an alternative to the mudslinging that enveloped Comer and Heiner in the campaign's final days.
A TV ad in the final week summed up his message, as actors portraying Comer and Heiner sat at a children's table and threw food at each other while Bevin smiled and a narrator said, "Kentucky can do much better."
Bevin now sets his sights on Democratic nominee Jack Conway, a two-time statewide election winner as Kentucky's attorney general who stockpiled more than $1 million in campaign donations during a primary with minimal opposition. Bevin has mostly self-financed his race with money earned from his career as an investment banker.
Now Bevin will have to rally the Republican Party following a divisive primary. The state's leading elected officials have embraced him, and McConnell has vowed to endorse him. But Bevin still must prove he can draw Republican donors who have mostly avoided him.
"If I were Matt Bevin and his campaign, I'd be calling as many of those (donors) as I can right now," veteran Republican strategist Scott Jennings said. "He's run two elections in Kentucky and in neither case did he have much success raising money from donors in the state."