FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — In the complicated world of Kentucky Republican politics, Matt Bevin needs to step away from wrangling over endorsements with Mitch McConnell and turn his attention to locking in a victory in last week's GOP primary.
Bevin has had a distant relationship with McConnell since he challenged the powerful Kentucky senator's re-election bid last year. He leads Agriculture Commissioner James Comer by only 83 votes in the race for the Republican nomination for governor. Thursday morning, election officials will begin reviewing electronic voting machines and absentee ballots from the May 19 primary in each of the state's 120 counties.
The review is the final obstacle to rallying the party around a single candidate in hopes of putting the governor's office in Republican hands in one of the few Southern states where Democrats retain a hold on state government.
Over the last two weeks, Kentucky Republicans have watched as McConnell and presidential hopeful Sen. Rand Paul sparred over reauthorization of the Patriot Act. And they are still awaiting a signal from McConnell, whose 30-year rise to power basically built the Republican party in Kentucky, that it's OK to embrace Bevin. The Louisville businessman was dismissed by many loyal Republicans in 2014 for challenging McConnell ahead of an expensive and closely watched general election.
Many Republicans view Thursday's recanvass as a formality, especially because all of the party's candidates for governor have said they support Bevin and will work to elect him if the results stand.
"That really sort of helps party unity as we get this recanvass out of the way," veteran Republican strategist Scott Jennings said. "I have not heard anyone think the recanvass is going to change the result."
Even if Bevin wins, his relationship with the senator has been tricky. McConnell pledged Tuesday to support the nominee "as soon as we know who that is." McConnell stayed out of the primary, even as it appeared his political nemesis was gaining traction in the campaign's final days. Super PACs and nonprofit groups that supported McConnell in his expensive race last year stayed dark while McConnell stayed busy in Washington.
As for Comer, things don't look promising after a rough primary that saw him dogged by allegations that he abused a former girlfriend, which he denied and said originated with opponents campaigning dirty. Five requests for a recanvass since 2011 have not changed the outcome of an election.
Comer could ask a judge to order a recount or an examination of individual ballots, which he'd have to pay for himself. It is not clear if he's willing to do that, and attempts to reach him Wednesday were unsuccessful.
Bevin has been acting as the winner, giving speeches and sending out invitations to the state Lincoln Day dinner this weekend, where the nominee is the featured speaker before a crowd of hundreds of Republican donors and activists. But Bevin has faced criticism after saying he supported McConnell in the general election, even though he never publicly endorsed the senator. Federal records show Bevin has not donated to McConnell's campaign, something Democratic nominee Jack Conway pointed out on Tuesday.
And he and the senator appear to still be keeping their distance: Bevin canceled an appearance Tuesday at a rotary club where McConnell was the featured speaker, and McConnell said he had to skip Bevin's speech Saturday to prepare for Sunday's session on the Patriot Act.
McConnell was the key to overcoming a divisive 2010 primary when Paul defeated Trey Grayson, his handpicked candidate. He ultimately embraced Paul and could give a boost to Bevin, too.
"If the Republican party doesn't come together it doesn't have a chance," said former Hardin County Republican Party chairman Jim Weise, who is focused on criticizing Conway. McConnell beat Bevin there last year, though Bevin won big there last week. "It's just going to be more of the same old Democratic crap."