Gov. Ernie Fletcher won the GOP nomination for a second term Tuesday, nine months after authorities dismissed charges that he violated hiring laws in a scheme to reward supporters with state jobs.
Accomplishing what some critics had thought impossible, Fletcher withstood challenges from former U.S. Rep. Anne Northup of Louisville and millionaire businessman Billy Harper of Paducah.
With 85 percent of precincts reporting, Fletcher had 50 percent of the vote to Northup’s 37 percent. Harper had 13 percent.
Fletcher needed at least 40 percent of the vote to avoid a runoff. Northup, who had tried to exploit Fletcher’s legal troubles in a barrage of TV ads and in stump speeches, called him shortly before 9 p.m. ET to congratulate him on the victory.
“He’ll go into the election with broad support across the state,” Northup said.
Winning the Republican primary was a remarkable comeback for Fletcher, who took office in 2003 on a promise to clean up the state Capitol but was indicted last year. His attorneys brokered a deal with prosecutors to throw out the allegations.
A year ago, critics speculated that Fletcher’s political career was in ruins. But in the weeks leading up to Tuesday’s primary, the state’s first Republican governor in more than 30 years emerged as the man to beat.
The fractious GOP primary has brightened Democrats’ hopes of recapturing the governor’s office.
Will face off with former lieutenant governor
On the Democratic side, with 85 percent of precincts reporting, former Lt. Gov. Steve Beshear had 42 percent of the vote to millionaire businessman Bruce Lunsford’s 21 percent and former Lt. Gov. Steve Henry’s 18 percent. House Speaker Jody Richards was next at 10 percent.
About 8:40 p.m. ET, Henry said he had left a message on Beshear’s cell phone congratulating him, though it was not yet known whether there would be a runoff.
Beshear, the son of a small-town Baptist preacher, made legalizing casinos the centerpiece of his campaign, claiming gambling could generate $500 million a year in additional tax revenue for the state. The 62-year-old Lexington lawyer is attempting a political comeback more than a decade after his name last appeared on Kentucky’s ballot.
Beshear’s resume includes stints as a state legislator, attorney general and lieutenant governor. But his last two campaigns ended in defeat; he ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic nomination for governor in 1987 and lost to Republican Mitch McConnell in the 1996 Senate race.
The grand jury that indicted Fletcher alleged the governor had approved a “widespread and coordinated plan” to skirt state hiring laws. The goal, according to the panel, was to reward Fletcher’s GOP political supporters with protected state jobs at the expense of state workers who backed his opponent.
Fletcher called the grand jury’s investigation a political witch hunt. He charged that the state attorney general, Lunsford’s running mate, pursued the case for political gain.