GOP Takes Back Kentucky and Mississippi

Rep. Ernie Fletcher (search) and Washington lobbyist Haley Barbour (search) took the governorships of their respective states from the Democrats and served the Republican Party an important victory as it gears up for a fight to keep the White House next year.

Fletcher won the open governor's seat in Kentucky, defeating Attorney General and Democrat Ben Chandler (search). The win returned the governor's seat to a Republican for the first time in 32 years and followed a last-minute visit by President Bush Saturday to campaign with Fletcher in Paducah and London.

Former Republican National Committee chairman Barbour handily defeated incumbent Democrat Ronnie Musgrove (search) in another closely watched race. Barbour, who also campaigned with Bush over the weekend, told supporters in Mississippi Tuesday night, "Tomorrow is a day to move on and put this day behind us and get ready to accentuate the positive."

In Philadelphia, one of three big-city mayoral races, Democratic incumbent John Street (search) won over Republican businessman Sam Katz (search).

Upending conventional wisdom, Street was said to be buoyed by reports about his being bugged by the FBI. The eavesdropping device was found in a routine sweep by security officials at city hall, but rather than an FBI probe damaging Street, he claimed it was an effort by Republicans to play dirty tricks to make sure he was thrown out of office.

Democrats took control of the New Jersey Legislature, breaking a 20-20 tie in the state Senate and defeating the GOP's top Senate leader, in a campaign where Republicans sought to make Democratic Gov. Jim McGreevey (search)'s unpopularity an issue.

In Mississippi, state officials said they were investigating dozens of reports of irregularities Tuesday, including allegations that observers followed voters into ballot booths or videotaped voters and their completed ballots.

"The Republican Party has run this election with a fist full of dollars in one hand and a Confederate flag in the other," said state Democratic Party chairman Rickey L. Cole.

Earlier, Barbour had revisited another issue that divided the races -- the Confederate flag. Recent ads reminded voters that Musgrove had supported an unsuccessful 2001 referendum that sought to remove the Rebel X (search).

Musgrove won his seat four years ago in Mississippi's closest governor's race ever. Unlike his opponent, Musgrove has distanced himself from national party figures.

The race broke state records, with Barbour raising at least $10.6 million and Musgrove at least $8.5 million.

Both the Mississippi and Kentucky races turned on state issues, but as the highest-level elections before the 2004 White House contest, they drew close scrutiny from political strategists, and candidates in those states tried out slogans and strategies that could well be used in next year's presidential race. Voters in both states supported Bush in 2002.

Mississippi Democrats criticized Barbour as a "Washington insider" as President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and other top GOP officials came to campaign for him.

In Kentucky, party activists argued that a vote for Chandler would tell the White House its economic policy is a failure.

Chandler's campaign tried to rally voters with criticism of Bush. "It sends a message to the rest of the country: We're tired of the biggest budget deficit in history," said former Democratic governor and Sen. Wendell Ford, stumping for the Democrat.

But recent polls showed the Democrats vulnerable. In Kentucky, term-limited Gov. Paul Patton is leaving after an infidelity scandal that soured voters. Fletcher campaigned on a promise to "clean up the mess in Frankfort."

"The Democrat strategy was negative attacks and tying Ernie Fletcher to President Bush and making this race a referendum on the president's economic policies," Republican National Chairman Ed Gillespie said. "The Democrats had their referendum and got their answer."

Republicans went into the 2003 election holding seven of 11 governorships in the South, having turned out Democratic chief executives in Alabama, South Carolina and Georgia last year. With Arnold Schwarzenneger's victory in California last month and Fletcher's win, Republicans will hold 28 governorships nationwide.

The race in Philadelphia was a repeat of one four years ago that Katz lost by fewer than 10,000 votes. It was also marred by complaints about voter intimidation, both before and on Election Day. The Philadelphia district attorney's office said it got dozens of calls on Tuesday by supporters of both Katz and Street. 

At least one Katz supporter, a University of Pennsylvania professor, was taken to the hospital after his cheek was allegedly slashed by a Street supporter who slapped him when he complained about Street signs being placed on top of Katz signs outside his polling place. Another Katz worker said he was hit with a two-by-four.

Katz supporters were ordered by a judge to stop asking voters for identification at a pair of city polling places. A Street spokesman complained that a man posing as a city official told voters at another location that the building was condemned.

Elsewhere, Maine voters rejected a $650 million gambling resort that opponents said would tarnish the state's outdoorsy image. In Denver, a "peace initiative" to reduce stress lost by a more than 2-1 margin.

In other mayors' races:

-- Houston businessman Bill White, a Democrat, will face a December runoff against former city councilman Orlando Sanchez, a Republican. Mayor Lee Brown, the city's first black mayor, cannot seek a fourth term.

-- San Francisco was picking a new mayor; Willie Brown is barred from seeking a third term. Wealthy entrepreneur Gavin Newsom, who sought to get panhandlers off city streets, will face a runoff against a Green Party candidate, Board of Supervisors President Matt Gonzalez.

A third Southern governor's race goes before the voters in Louisiana on Nov. 15. That race will decide who replaces term-limited GOP Gov. Mike Foster.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.