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Kentucky Republicans' 'Unity Rally' Packed With Intrigue

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Bevin supporters gathered in Louisville.

Republican candidates for governor are scheduled to attend a “unity rally” Saturday in Lexington intended to show solidarity with the party, and to mend wounds caused by the contentious—and not yet settled—gubernatorial primary race.

But the rally has several potential points of tension, Kentucky political observers say.

Sens. Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul, plus most of Kentucky’s Republican congressional delegation, requested the candidates attend the rally in order to “unite around our nominees and work towards victory next fall.”

But depending on how gubernatorial candidate Jamie Comer decides to handle the results of a recanvass of votes that he requested, the unity rally may not be as friendly as Republicans leaders hoped.

Agriculture Commissioner Comer lost the race to Louisville businessman Matt Bevin by just 83 votes last week.

In the recanvass, election officials from around the state will review the totals from voting machines to check whether there are any discrepancies from last week’s vote.  Recanvasses typically don’t yield many votes—the last, which occurred in 2011, yielded only six additional votes.

(A recanvass will also take-place in the race for agriculture commissioner—Rep. Richard Heath lost that race to Rep. Ryan Quarles by 1,427 votes.)

The question on Republicans’ minds is whether Comer will then request a full-fledged recount of votes.  That process involves a review of individual ballots across the state, completed by a judge in the Franklin Circuit Court.

Unlike the recanvass, a recount is costly and could take weeks to complete.  Comer, who'd pick up the tab for the recount, must request it by Friday—the day before the rally.

University of Kentucky political science Professor Steve Voss said that a recount of votes could make the scheduled rally more tense.

“If there’s a recount called right before the unity rally, the smiles may be a little more forced, the handshakes a little tighter,” Voss said.

Voss said he doesn't believe state Republicans won’t let a recount divide them, because it’s too important to focus their attention on defeating Democratic candidate Jack Conway in the fall.

“Ultimately, it’s not good for somebody’s political career to defect from their party and it would take something pretty extreme to see them do that,” Voss said.

Voss thinks it is likely that Comer will seek a recount, and that Bevin could even seek one as well if things go in Comer’s direction after the recanvass.

“This is just so close. It’s within a reasonable margin of error on the election returns.”

But Al Cross, Director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky, said he doubts that Comer will pursue a recount.

In an effort to move on from the primary, Republicans may discourage Comer from seeking a recount, he said. Also, after an already costly campaign, Comer might have trouble raising money to pay for it.

“There might be so much pressure in the party to go ahead and get this general election campaign going,” Cross said

Further complicating the rally is a touchy history between likely candidate Bevin and McConnell.

In 2014, Bevin launched a Tea Party-backed challenge for McConnell’s Senate seat, losing by 35 percentage points. During that campaign, Bevin and McConnell traded barbs: Bevin accused McConnell of being too moderate and tried to turn the Kentucky Republican base against the longtime senator.

McConnell in turn accused Bevin of taking a bailout to rebuild his bell company in Connecticut and of erroneously claiming he attended MIT.

After the Senate race, Bevin declined to endorse McConnell, who went on to become the Senate majority leader.

“One of the real questions here is how much advice Bevin is going to be willing to take from McConnell given the bad blood they had between each other,” Cross said.  “Bevin’s kind of thin-skinned. McConnell is not. McConnell is just business, it’s the way you play ball. Bevin is much less experienced at that.”

McConnell has indicated that he will endorse Bevin if he receives the nomination.

Cross said McConnell’s desire for a Republican governor in Kentucky will motivate him to support Bevin’s candidacy despite their history. He also suggested that McConnell may have known that Bevin was the most viable of the candidates even before the primary.

“McConnell and his people may have not activated the super PAC to go after Bevin even though they knew he was coming through the middle, because they looked at the bad blood between Heiner and Comer and they thought that, like him or not, Bevin might be the best guy to unify the party around," Cross said.

Last week, Kentucky Republican Party Treasurer Cathy Bell said the rally will still take place because the party has made a financial commitment to the Lexington Marriott.

Ryland Barton is the Managing Editor for Collaboratives. Email Ryland at rbarton@lpm.org.