LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WKYT) - Republican Matt Bevin defeated Democrat Jack Conway by more than 84,000 votes to become only the second Republican Kentucky governor in four decades.
Bevin took the lead early in Tuesday's election, and he never let it go. Earlier in the day, he told a crowd of reporters that he felt a shift was coming in the race, and while it was ultimately up to the voters, he said he felt good.
"I believe I'll win but votes will decide," he said. "Momentum has shifted; it is on our side. The enthusiasm is there. Really turns out to be who turns out to vote."
About 30.6 percent or 982,259 of Kentucky's 3,201,852 voters turned out to vote, according to the secretary of state's office.
The Louisville businessman received 511,771 votes, pushing him well past Conway's 426,944 votes. Independent Drew Curtis was a distant third with 35,629 votes.
Jack Conway, the state's attorney general, didn't say a whole lot when he took the stage just before 9 p.m. Tuesday at the Frankfort Convention Center to make his concession speech.
"Tonight was not the result that we had hoped for, but it is a result we respect," he told the crowd.
Conway said he called Bevin to congratulate him. He said he was obviously disappointed, but he said he was "honored by the support I received from so many Kentuckians who shared my commitment to the issues that matter to hardworking families."
"I ran for governor because I believed in fighting for the values and the interests of Kentucky’s working families, and it’s been an honor to serve as a strong voice for so many in this election," he said. "I also want to thank the people of Kentucky for allowing me the tremendous honor of serving as the 49th Attorney General of the Commonwealth of Kentucky. Whether in public or private life, I look forward to always working to improve our Commonwealth."
Conway didn't say much about what's next except this, to his two daughters: "Eva, Alex...daddy's going to be home a lot."
In Louisville, Bevin took the stage after several other Republican candidates who were also celebrating victories. Kentucky Lt. Governor elect Jenean Hampton, the state's first African-American to hold a statewide office, briefly addressed the crowd before Bevin was introduced. She said it was "amazing."
Bevin reiterated that as he headed to the stage.
"It feels outstanding, it's a good day for Kentucky," he said.
Bevin addressed the crowd, thanking his wife, his children and his parents. He acknowledged that there is a challenge ahead, but he said he was prepared to lead the state.
"We need a fresh start," Bevin said. "I do want us to remember that the task before us has only just begun."
Bevin talked about uniting the state's leaders, crossing party lines to achieve their goals.
"This is a call out to everyone in Kentucky," he said. "Whether you voted for me or not. This is your Kentucky."
Republicans have dominated federal elections in Kentucky, but moderate Democrats have maintained control of state government. Bevin's election gives Republicans control of the executive branch along with a commanding majority in the state Senate. Democrats still have an eight-seat majority in the state House of Representatives.
Focus will almost immediately shift to the state House elections in 2016, where U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell has vowed to flex his powerful fundraising muscle to Republicans to take over the only southern state legislative body controlled by Democrats.
Voters elected someone to replace a two-term Democrat in a race that has turned on health insurance for 500,000 people, marriage licenses for same-sex couples and public education for preschool children.
The three gubernatorial candidates contrasted sharply in a race watched closely for its proximity to the 2016 presidential election and for its competitiveness in one of the nation's last two-party states.
The two major-party candidates and their allies have 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 does not include direct mail or ads on radio or local cable systems.
The governor’s race was considered to be one of the top tickets in the country. The race was featured Tuesday in the New York Times.
Last spring, Bevin won a nail-biter of a primary -- just 83 votes -- over James Comer. That wasn't the case this time around.
Conway had been considered, in polls, to be the frontrunner. Bevin appeared to have an uphill battle.
Steve Robertson, spokesman for the Kentucky Republican Party, said it would be a close race.
Both sides have spent a lot of money, Robertson said. Bevin has been outspent recently, but Robertson says everything is "even-Steven now."
"It is a jump ball, anybody's ball game," he said. "Both campaigns have really been going at it. Matt Bevin is in a good position."
Meanwhile, Curtis said social media was a big part of his campaign. In a column published Tuesday by Wired, Curtis said the Internet has made it possible for a third-party candidate to win an election.
"Basically whatever I'm going to clock in, I've done with nothing. So if you add that effort plus an honest-to-God political campaign, you could see some pretty big results," Curtis said.
Curtis cast his vote Tuesday morning alongside family in Versailles. He spoke to reporters and acknowledged that his chance of winning was slim.
Curtis said there is value in his campaign because it brings up topics that might not have been discussed, such as the pension system, tax reform and restoring voting rights for felons.
"If nothing else happens other than that, that's going to be a huge boon to the state just by itself," he said. "So yeah, being able to bring more complicated subjects to the table than people otherwise would have talked about."