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By Steve Bittenbender

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (Reuters) — Republican businessman Matt Bevin was elected Kentucky’s next governor on Tuesday, marking a setback for Democrats who had controlled the office in every election but one since 1971 and underscoring the party’s decline in the conservative U.S. South.

Bevin, who rode Tea Party support to a narrow victory in a four-way Republican primary, soundly defeated State Attorney General Jack Conway, who quickly conceded on Tuesday night after his late October lead in the polls evaporated on election day.

“This is a chance for a fresh start,” said Bevin at his victory event, calling his candidacy an opportunity to change traditional politics. “It truly is, and we desperately need it.”

Republicans also were successful in securing a second term for Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant, who easily defeated a little-known opponent in the conservative Southern state, according to media reports and CNN projections.

Kentucky’s more hotly contested race reflected the partisan divide seen nationally over gay marriage and President Barack Obama’s signature healthcare law in a contest to replace Democratic Governor Steve Beshear, who cannot run because of term limits.

Bevin’s path to victory included courting religious conservatives after meeting with embattled Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis after she was jailed for defying a federal judge’s order to issue marriage licenses to gay couples.

“I am ecstatic,” Davis said in a statement released by her attorneys at the conservative Liberty Counsel, adding that Bevin had prayed for her. “I will be forever thankful that he came to visit me while I was in jail.”

While Tea Party leaders celebrated a win for Bevin, a conservative known to challenge establishment Republicans, he also benefited from a late infusion of cash from the Republican Governors Association. The organization said it poured $2.5 million into the state during the final two weeks of the campaign and spent a total of $6 million on the race.

Bevin had pledged to roll back the expansion of Medicaid to provide health coverage to the poor under Obama’s health plan as started by the current governor, which Conway had supported.

Although Kentucky voters routinely send Republicans to Washington, D.C., experts thought Conway had the advantage going into election day, given Democrats’ enduring state-level strength in recent decades.

Bevin’s lieutenant governor, Jenean Hampton, becomes the first African American elected to statewide office in Kentucky.

(Writing and additional reporting by Letitia Stein in Tampa, Fla.; Editing by Bill Trott and Eric Walsh)

Photo: Kentucky Republican senatorial candidate Matt Bevin addresses the crowd during a campaign stop at Lexington Airport in Lexington, Kentucky, in this May 19, 2014, file photo. REUTERS/John Sommers II/Files

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