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The Sun Shines Bright on Fletcher

Kentucky Congressman GOP’s Best Hope for Governor in 32 Years

Riding high from his decisive win in Tuesday’s gubernatorial primary, Rep. Ernie Fletcher hopes to become the first Republican to govern Kentucky in 32 years.

He overcame a legal challenge to his candidacy to capture 57 percent of his party’s vote and carry 103 of the state’s 120 counties.

“I’m very excited,” Fletcher said Wednesday. “We won with a larger margin than any of us dreamed.”

Fletcher will face state Attorney General Ben Chandler (D) in the Nov. 4 election.

Because of Democrats’ long-running hold on the governorship, Chandler has “to be considered a narrow favorite, but we have made a lot of progress,” said Senate Majority Whip Mitch McConnell (Ky.), the dominant figure in the Bluegrass State GOP. “The current administration is widely unpopular and is kind of a metaphor of what happens when one party is in control for so long.”

Outgoing two-term Gov. Paul Patton (D) has been plagued by scandal and cannot run for re-election because of term limits.

Nonetheless, Chandler, grandson of A.B. “Happy” Chandler, a popular former governor who also served in the U.S. Senate and as a Major League Baseball commissioner, is considered a formidable candidate.

The 43-year-old attorney general has held statewide office since 1991 and captured 50.2 percent of the Democratic vote Tuesday. His margin of victory was likely narrowed by the battering he took in the primary from wealthy businessman Bruce Lunsford, who dumped almost $8 million of his own money into the race before dropping out Friday and throwing his weight behind a third candidate, Kentucky House Speaker Jody Richards.

Richards finished second with 46.5 percent of the vote, followed by political unknown Otis Hensley Jr., a demolition worker who took just 3.3 percent of the vote.

Fletcher’s path to the general election was not completely smooth either.

After his first running mate, Hunter Bates, formerly chief of staff to McConnell, was disqualified for not meeting the state’s residency requirement, Republican primary opponent Steve Nunn, a state Representative, tried to get Fletcher’s bid tossed out as well.

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

Nunn finished third with 13 percent of the total and carried only five counties. Former Jefferson County Judge-Executive Rebecca Jackson came in second with 28 percent of the vote, carrying 12 counties.

State Sen. Virgil Moore claimed only 1 percent of the primary vote.

The 50-year-old, three-term Congressman, who represents Kentucky’s 6th district in the Frankfort and Lexington regions, was on track to spend $1.7 million to win the nomination — the most of any Republican hopeful, according to the Lexington Herald-Leader.

With the primary behind him, Fletcher said he hopes to get the moral and financial support of the Kentucky delegation, which remained neutral throughout the primary.

“The delegation is very excited … and will help with resources,” Fletcher said, adding that the White House is also “very interested” in his bid.

Shortly after claiming victory Tuesday, Fletcher said he spoke with White House political adviser Karl Rove.

McConnell pledged to support Fletcher and said he would “do anything [Fletcher] asks” to help promote his candidacy.

As soon as Fletcher was declared the winner his primary opponents rallied around him, which will be important down the road, McConnell added.

“It will be a very close race,” McConnell said.

Fletcher said he is prepared for the tough fight ahead but will not quit his day job to further his aspirations.

“I plan on staying here,” he said Wednesday, referring to Washington. “The people elected me to do a job.”

Fletcher spent Tuesday in Washington, flying to Kentucky in the evening and then returning to Washington in time for Wednesday’s floor votes.

He plans to return to Kentucky for the Memorial Day recess and get back to campaigning after taking a few days with his family to rest.

As for who might replace him in a special House election if he wins, Fletcher would not say which Republicans have expressed interest in the job, only that it is “very important that we have a good candidate.”

If Fletcher loses, Kentucky’s election laws do not prevent him from seeking another House term in 2004.

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