Kentucky's bitter race for governor went into overtime Wednesday as Democrat Andy Beshear declared victory while Republican Gov. Matt Bevin, a close ally of President Donald Trump, refused to concede with results showing he trailed by a few thousand votes.
With 100% of precincts reporting, Mr. Beshear – the state's attorney general and the son of Kentucky's last Democratic governor, Steve Beshear – had a lead of 5,333 votes out of more than 1.4 million counted, or a margin of less than 0.4 percentage points. The Associated Press has not declared a winner.
In competing speeches late Tuesday, Mr. Beshear claimed victory while Mr. Bevin refused to concede.
"My expectation is that he [Bevin] will honor the election that was held tonight," Mr. Beshear said. "That he will help us make this transition. And I'll tell you what, we will be ready for that first day in office, and I look forward to it."
Kentucky inaugurates its governors in the December following an election.
Mr. Bevin, meanwhile, called the contest a "close, close race" and said he wasn't conceding "by any stretch."
"We want the process to be followed, and there is a process," he said.
Mr. Bevin won the 2015 GOP primary for governor by just 83 votes, noting wryly Tuesday night: "Would it be a Bevin race if it wasn't a squeaker?"
The margin is much larger this time. Mr. Bevin hinted there might be "irregularities" to look into but didn't offer specifics. His campaign didn't immediately respond to an email seeking an explanation.
Kentucky has no mandatory recount law. Mr. Bevin may request counties recanvass their results – not a recount, but rather a check of the vote count to ensure the results were added correctly. Mr. Bevin would need to seek and win a court's approval for a recount.
"The margin is large enough to not have a reasonable expectation that it can be closed with anything outstanding," Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes' office said in a statement. "The process laid out by the law will be followed and all candidates do have a recourse to review or challenge their results."
Ms. Grimes, a Democrat, has overseen 20-plus recanvasses during her two terms as secretary of state, her office said. The results never changed significantly enough to flip the outcome of a race, it said.
While Mr. Bevin wasn't throwing in the towel, some prominent Kentucky Republicans were conceding that Mr. Beshear won.
Republican strategist Scott Jennings referred to Mr. Beshear as Kentucky's next governor, wishing him "godspeed" and saying he "ran a good race" in a social media post.
Also on social media, GOP state Rep. Jason Nemes said: "Governor-elect Beshear is entitled to the democratic legitimacy that comes with loser's consent. So let's go through the process honorably and expeditiously and give it to him."
The final hours of campaigning were dominated by Mr. Bevin's endorsement from Mr. Trump.
Mr. Trump had loomed large in the race as Mr. Bevin stressed his alliance with the Republican president in TV ads, tweets, and speeches. Mr. Trump carried Kentucky by a landslide in winning the presidency in 2016 and remains popular in the state. The president took center stage in the campaign with an election eve rally to energize his supporters for his fellow Republican.
But the combative Mr. Bevin struggled to overcome a series of self-inflicted wounds, highlighted by a running feud with teachers who opposed his efforts to revamp the state's woefully underfunded public pension systems.
Mr. Bevin lagged well behind the vote totals for the rest of the GOP slate for statewide offices. Republican candidates swept Kentucky's races for attorney general, secretary of state, auditor, treasurer, and agriculture commissioner.
Mr. Trump took credit Wednesday for the near sweep, tweeting, "Our big Kentucky Rally on Monday night had a massive impact on all of the races. He claimed that Mr. Bevin "picked up at least 15 points in last days, but perhaps not enough (Fake News will blame Trump!)."
Mr. Beshear dominated urban areas in Louisville and Lexington and won some traditionally Republican suburban counties in the state's northernmost tip, just south of Cincinnati, to offset Mr. Bevin's strength in rural areas. Mr. Beshear also made inroads in eastern Kentucky, winning several counties in a region where Mr. Trump is highly popular.
While Mr. Beshear looks to quickly pivot to governing, he'll confront a dominant GOP. Republicans hold overwhelming majorities in the state legislature.
Mr. Beshear maintained his focus throughout the race on "kitchen table" issues like health care and education to blunt Mr. Bevin's efforts to hitch himself to Mr. Trump and nationalize the race.
On health care, Mr. Beshear could have an immediate impact by backing away from a Bevin proposal to attach work requirements to Medicaid benefits received under the Affordable Care Act. Mr. Bevin's plan for some "able-bodied" recipients has been challenged in court and is yet to be enacted, and Mr. Beshear has vowed to rescind it.
Mr. Beshear also has said he wants to legalize casino gambling and use that revenue to support public pensions. Some Republican lawmakers campaigning for Mr. Bevin vowed to reject that idea if it came before them.
Mr. Beshear also exploited Bevin's feud with teachers over pensions and education issues, repeatedly referring to Mr. Bevin as a bully.
Mr. Beshear said Tuesday night that teachers shared in his victory.
"To our educators, your courage to stand up and fight against all the bullying and name calling helped galvanize our entire state," Mr. Beshear said.
Mr. Beshear proposed a $2,000 across-the-board pay raise for public school teachers and vowed to submit "an education-first budget" to lawmakers.
This story was reported by The Associated Press. Jonathan Mattise contributed to from Bowling Green, Kentucky.