FRANKFORT -- James Comer's request to review the razor-thin results of Kentucky's Republican primary for governor could delay the party's efforts to coalesce around a single candidate, giving Democratic nominee Jack Conway a head start in a closely watched election ahead of the 2016 presidential race.
The volatile primary - marked by allegations that Comer had abused an ex-girlfriend years ago and an apology from the opponent blamed for publicizing them - ended in a virtual tie Tuesday night as Louisville businessman Matt Bevin led Comer by just 83 votes.
Comer did not concede and told supporters he would ask the Secretary of State to review the election results, which by state law would happen May 28.
"This has been a difficult election. We've gone through a lot together in this race," Comer told supporters at the Capital Plaza Hotel in Frankfort. "We overcame so much money, we overcame the bad press with the newspapers in the state. We overcame a lot. And I owe it to our supporters to ask for a recanvass."
Bevin's campaign manager, Ben Hartman, said they "have a very high confidence that the results as they stand currently will hold."
There are no runoff elections in Kentucky and no automatic recounts. State law allows for recanvassing, essentially a review of vote totals by county, only if a county clerk or a county board of elections notices a discrepancy or if a candidate makes a written request to the Secretary of State.
The uncertainty follows a nasty campaign that frayed relationships in a party that has made tremendous gains in voter registration but has yet to take control of a state government dominated by Democrats.
Comer called it "the dirtiest campaign that I've ever witnessed in Kentucky history." Those remarks appeared to be directed at former Louisville city councilman Hal Heiner, who publicly apologized for his campaign's contact with a blogger who had promoted the abuse allegations for more than a year on social media.
Comer and Heiner's fighting left Bevin, who had $5 million and name recognition from his failed U.S. Senate bid last year, as the landing spot for disaffected Republican voters. He ran a TV ad with actors portraying Comer and Heiner sitting at a children's table throwing food at each other.
Sally Oh, who lives near Owingsville in Bath County, said Republicans in her county were split between Bevin and James Comer. She was pumping her fist during early returns that showed a solid lead for Bevin.
"He gets liberty," she said.
Tuesday night, Comer and his aides appeared crestfallen even as they did not concede defeat. Comer told supporters: "We came up just a little short."
"I told Matt Bevin that if this recanvass doesn't work out, I will gladly stand with you, I will walk with you door to door and every house in this state to help get you elected in November," Comer said.
But Bevin might have to work harder to win over Kentucky's major Republican donors. Bevin ran a mostly self-financed primary, meaning he will have to court the very donors that shunned him during his brash, failed challenge to U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell in the 2014 primary. And he will have to repair his image as a tea party antagonist among some Kentucky conservatives.
Tuesday night, Bevin did not back down from the hardcore conservative policies that have propelled his political career, including a reference to the 10th Amendment and its protections of state sovereignty.
"We will stand on our state sovereignty, we will do what is in our best interest, we will say to the federal government, who tries to bribe us to do what is not in our best interest with federal dollars ... we will say `keep your dollars, keep your suggestions,' and we will do what is best for the people of Kentucky," he said.
It appeared McConnell's team was taking the first steps toward embracing Bevin's candidacy. Josh Holmes, the architect behind McConnell's 2014 campaign who has often called Bevin a liar, posted on his personal Twitter account: "I've never said a bad word about a Republican nominee in my life and that won't change tonight. Congrats to (at)MattBevin. I hope he wins."
Democratic nominee Jack Conway said the Republican fighting has put him in a good position to win in November, telling reporters, "From voters I've talked to, I don't think they are enjoying watching it."
"The next generation of Kentuckians are counting on us. Because if we don't do our jobs this fall, we will have an officeholder who will push an agenda that - listen to me - will hurt, will hurt the hard-working families of Kentucky," Conway said. "That's not the type of leadership Kentucky needs."