FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — The Associated Press has declared Republican Matt Bevin the winner in the race for Kentucky.
Bevin, a 1989 graduate of Washington and Lee University, ran against Democrat Jack Conway to replace a popular two-term Democratic governor in a race that has turned on health insurance for 500,000 people and public preschool options.
Independent Drew Curtis ran a distant third.
Bevin is only the second Republican to be elected Kentucky governor in four decades. With three-quarters of the precincts reporting, Bevin had 52 percent of the votes and Conway 44 percent.
The race was watched closely for its proximity to the 2016 presidential election and for its competitiveness in one of the nation’s last two-party states. Bevin will replace Gov. Steve Beshear, who could not seek re-election because of term limits.
The two major-party candidates and their allies spent more than $14 million to air more than 41,000 TV ads in Kentucky, according to an analysis by the Center for Public Integrity. That’s not counting radio and direct mail ads or TV ads on local cable systems.
A surge in absentee ballots forced Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes to revise predictions of a dismal turnout. She now predicts it will equal or exceed that of 2011, when 28 percent of registered voters cast ballots to re-elect Beshear. Polls are open from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. local time.
Bevin voted at the Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary at about 7:40 a.m. Conway voted about an hour later at the Knights of Columbus Hall in Louisville. Both men claimed to have the momentum to win the election.
“(The race) seems more visceral in some respects, and I think that’s a good thing,” Bevin told reporters after casting his vote.
Conway said voter turnout in Jefferson County, which includes Louisville and is the state’s most populous county, appeared higher than in previous governor’s races.
“My wife and I … this morning we got up, we looked at each other and we said, ‘We gave it our all.’ That’s all you can do,” he said.
Bevin, a Louisville businessman, mounted an unsuccessful, high-profile Republican primary challenge to U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell in 2014. He contrasts his experience as an investment manager with Conway, whom he calls a “career politician.” Bevin has recently emphasized their differences on social issues, including abortion, as he courted the state’s majority Democratic voters to “vote your values, not your party.”
“We believe in a smaller government, and the private industry experience he has will bring in new jobs, new industry and cut back on taxes,” said Ron Stocks of Lexington who said he plans to vote for Bevin.
Conway, Kentucky’s two-term Democratic attorney general, lost a high-profile U.S. Senate race against Rand Paul in 2010. He claims the experience to lead state government and has promised to expand Kentucky’s public preschool options.
“He’s a champion of public education and early childhood education. And that’s just incredibly important,” said Diane Spurlock, 76, of Lexington, who said she plans to vote for Conway.
Curtis, the founder and operator of news aggregation website fark.com, casts himself as an alternative to political party ideology, but he has struggled to get his message out to voters. With less than 10 percent of support in public polls, Curtis was excluded from most of the televised debates.
Much of the race has focused on Beshear’s decision to expand Kentucky’s Medicaid program to insure an additional 400,000 people and his creation of a state-run health insurance exchange where an additional 100,000 people bought private health insurance plans with the help of federal subsidies.
Bevin says taxpayers cannot afford to continue to pay for the health insurance of a quarter of the state’s population. He has promised to repeal the exchange and expansion and replace them with something else, possibly requiring recipients to pay a small premium for coverage.
Conway calls Bevin’s plan “callous,” saying it would remove coverage from hundreds of thousands of people who need it. He has pledged to continue both programs, as has Curtis.
Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis shook up the race during the summer when she refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. A judge later jailed her for refusing to obey his court order. Her office is now issuing the licenses, but her case is still pending.
Bevin supported Davis and used her plight to rally religious conservatives statewide. Conway and Curtis said the judge was correct to jail Davis for refusing to do her job. But none of the candidates has focused much on Davis or same-sex marriage in recent weeks as national polls suggest the majority of Americans do not support her actions.