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Down the Kentucky Homestretch

Fletcher Is the Frontrunner in Tuesday’s GOP Gubernatorial Primary

A term-limited, scandal-plagued incumbent, a lawsuit, attack ads and allegations of dirty money and fraud.

That’s just the run-up to Kentucky’s gubernatorial primary, the first major contest of the new election cycle.

Tuesday’s election features Rep. Ernie Fletcher as the frontrunner on the Republican side and Kentucky Attorney General Ben Chandler as the leading Democrat. They are among the candidates vying to replace term-limited Gov. Paul Patton (D), whose star has fallen very far since he admitted to an extramarital affair.

But Fletcher almost did not make it onto the ballot.

After his first running mate, Hunter Bates, formerly chief of staff to Senate Majority Whip Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), was disqualified for not meeting the state’s residency requirement, his Republican primary opponent, state Rep. Steve Nunn, tried to get Fletcher’s bid tossed out as well.

Nunn — son of former Gov. Louie Nunn (R) — argued that the judge’s ruling forced Fletcher to replace Bates long after the filing deadline and therefore invalidated the entire ticket.

The state Supreme Court declared Fletcher and his replacement, lieutenant governor running mate Steve Pence, eligible May 7.

Since then, Nunn has dropped in the polls, according to the Louisville Courier-Journal.

The paper’s latest Bluegrass poll released Wednesday put Fletcher at 37 percent, former Jefferson County Judge-Executive Rebecca Jackson at 20 percent and Nunn at only 12 percent. State Sen. Virgil Moore garnered a mere 2 percent, with 29 percent undecided.

“I feel very good but am not going to stop working until the polls close in Western Kentucky; there are still a lot of undecided voters,” Fletcher said Wednesday.

The eligibility flap may wind up helping Fletcher, according to campaign spokesman Wes Irvin.

“I don’t think the lawsuit will hurt us,” Irvin said. “People saw that he didn’t overreact, that he kept his cool … and never attacked,” which they liked, he said.

Even though Fletcher is seen as the hand-picked candidate of McConnell, who dominates GOP affairs in the Bluegrass State, the Kentucky Congressional delegation remains officially neutral until Tuesday’s primary, according to campaign sources.

That point was driven home when Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.) chastised Nunn for using Bunning’s photo in a campaign mailing the same day the state Supreme Court ruled in Fletcher’s favor.

“I want to make clear that I did not authorize this mailing and I disavow it,” Bunning said, according to The Associated Press.

McConnell’s spokesman maintains that the state’s top Republican has not endorsed any primary candidate.

Fletcher has joked about the notion that he has been anointed by party leaders.

“People kept saying I was the anointed one but no one was willing to step up and anoint me,” he said

Fletcher added that it makes some sense for his GOP colleagues from Kentucky to remain neutral.

“I hope it helps us keep the party together,” he said.

While no one from the Kentucky delegation has contributed to Fletcher’s campaign so far, several other Members have.

Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.) has contributed $2,000, while Rep. Robin Hayes (R-N.C.) kicked in $1,000. Rep. Don Sherwood (R-Pa.) and Senate Budget Chairman Don Nickles (R-Okla.) have both contributed $1,000 through their political action committees.

While the Republican primary was marred by the lawsuit, the Democratic primary has featured lots of mudslinging.

Chandler, whose grandfather A.B. “Happy” Chandler was a popular governor, a Senator and Major League Baseball commissioner, has long been seen as the frontrunner.

But wealthy businessman Bruce Lunsford has spent a record $7.8 million, mostly on negative television ads, trying to dethrone him.

In several spots he suggests that Chandler has taken “dirty money” from crooked donors, including some who are allegedly under investigation by his office.

Fighting back, Chandler aired ads accusing Lunsford, who served as commerce commissioner under former Gov. John Brown (D), of shady business dealings.

Lunsford founded a now-bankrupt company, Vencor Inc., which managed nursing homes.

The ads claimed that Vencor had defrauded the federal government and tossed old, sick patients out on their ears.

The ads seem to have hurt Chandler and helped Lunsford, according to the Courier-Journal poll.

Chandler is still the frontrunner, with 31 percent, but he dropped 6 points since the last Bluegrass poll, according to the paper. Lunsford had 19 percent — a 16-point gain — and Kentucky House Speaker Jody Richards, who has struggled to raise money, stood at 14 percent.

The outcome of a general election is hard to predict. While Kentucky has become a Republican stronghold in national elections, Democrats have held the governor’s mansion for the past 32 years.

Fletcher said he had a “good feeling that the next governor of Kentucky will be a Republican.”

This year, Patton could be a drag on the Democratic ticket. Before he fell victim to the sex scandal, he was considered a strong likely challenger to Bunning next year.

Now, Democrats are scrambling to find someone to take on the freshman Senator. This year’s state elections, however, could produce potential challengers.

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