LOUISVILLE, Ky. – 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 99 percent of precincts reporting, Fletcher had 50 percent of the vote to Northup's 37 percent. Harper had 13 percent.
Fletcher met the 40 percent threshold to avoid a runoff and in November will face former Lt. Gov. Steve Beshear, who emerged from a crowded Democratic field.
"Well I guess we've answered the electability question," a beaming Fletcher said.
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. EDT 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 on misdemeanor charges. 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.
On the Democratic side, with 99 percent of precincts reporting, Beshear had 41 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 13 percent.
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.