He had the backing of President Trump, but Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin (R) only took just over half the vote to win the Republican nomination for his current job.
With more than two-thirds of precincts reporting, Bevin led state Rep. Robert Goforth (R) by a margin of 51 percent to 40 percent. Two other candidates split almost 9 percent of the vote.
The result is an embarrassment for Bevin, one of the least popular governors in America. Several Kentucky Republican strategists said on Tuesday they expected Bevin to claim between 60 and 80 percent of the vote in the Republican primary. He fell well short of those expectations.
During his first term in office, Bevin made the case that he is no career politician. He started fights with teachers unions, suggesting that several children had died because teachers went on strike demanding better pay, and he battled with members of his own party over the state’s mounting pension crisis.
In recent weeks, the governor has been booed at town hall-style meetings, even in conservative corners of the state, including at this year’s Kentucky Derby.
In a deeply Republican state that gave President Trump 62.5 percent of the vote in 2016, Bevin took just 53 percent of the vote in 2015 to win his job.
The Republican Governors Association ran ads boosting Bevin during the primary, an unusual step for a group that ordinarily saves its money for beating up on Democrats in the sprint to a general election.
Trump, who remains popular in Kentucky, added his own endorsement via Twitter on Tuesday.
“To the great people of Kentucky, please go out and vote for Matt Bevin today. Very important. He has done a fantastic job for you and America!” the president wrote.
Bevin posted a selfie of dinner with friends and family in the governor’s mansion just after polls closed. He spent the final day of the primary election holding a town hall, rather than actively campaigning. Bevin planned to hold a press conference on the steps of the governor’s mansion later in the night.
Bevin will face his biggest opponent, Attorney General Andy Beshear (D), in November. Beshear, the son of former Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear, has sued Bevin’s administration on a seemingly regular basis over pension reforms, education boards and, most recently, teacher sickouts.
Several Republican strategists said Bevin’s path to victory would be to nationalize a statewide race by bringing in Trump and painting Beshear as a typical liberal Democrat.
“It will be competitive, but Bevin has the wind at his back — he has the benefit of a good political environment, a popular president and the ability to draw a clear contrast with a far more liberal opponent,” said Phil Cox, a former executive director of the Republican Governors Association.
Bevin’s campaign manager invoked President Trump and compared Beshear to Hillary Clinton, the Democratic presidential nominee who took just 32 percent of the vote in Kentucky.
“The contrast in this election could not be more clear. The leadership of President Trump and Governor Bevin has grown the economy resulting in over 50,000 jobs leading to the lowest unemployment in Kentucky history,” Davis Paine, Bevin’s campaign manager, said in an email. “Andy Beshear brags about voting for Hillary Clinton and will oppose the President at every opportunity.”