LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Twenty years after a failed run for governor, Democrat Steve Beshear capped a political comeback with a lopsided victory over Gov. Ernie Fletcher, a Republican weakened by a damaging hiring scandal.
"People were ready for a change," Beshear said of Tuesday's election result. "They were, I think, fed up with what's gone on the last four years."
Fletcher won four years earlier on a campaign promise to clean up Frankfort but was indicted on misdemeanor charges that he rewarded politically connected Republicans with jobs at the expense of Democrats.
A Lexington attorney who had lost his last two political races, Beshear had little problem against Fletcher. He simply reminded voters about Fletcher's scandal at every opportunity, whether in televised debates, political ads or stump speeches. Beshear made ethics a key issue in the gubernatorial race, saying Fletcher had not only broken his promise from four years ago but had actually made a mess of his own.
With 100 percent of precincts reporting, Beshear had 619,686 votes or 59 percent, to Fletcher's 435,895 votes or 41 percent.
At a news conference on Wednesday, Beshear pledged to seek bipartisan cooperation with lawmakers in pushing his agenda next year. He said one clear message sent by voters was on the issue of putting a referendum on casino gambling on next year's ballot.
"Whether they are for it or against it, the overwhelming majority do want to vote on it," Beshear said.
Beshear has said allowing a limited number of casinos at racetracks and at off-track sites along the state's borders would generated about $500 million in additional tax revenue that could go for health care and education.
Beshear carried 92 counties, including the state's two largest, Fayette and Jefferson. Fletcher, who carried 86 counties when he won in 2003, won in only 28 this time, concentrated in the heavily Republican southeastern part of the state. Only two counties west of Interstate 65 went for Fletcher.
Confetti streamed onto the crowd as Beshear walked on stage for his victory speech, which was brief and repeatedly interrupted by applause. The crowd had also erupted into applause earlier in the evening when Fletcher was shown on giant-screen TVs conceding the race.
Fletcher said he called Beshear and congratulated him "on a vigorous campaign." In his speech at a Lexington hotel, he said it was time for him to move on, and he would work for a smooth transition.
"As someone once said, high office brings distinction, but also trouble. Oh, I wish I'd have seen that more clearly when I stood here flush with victory four years ago," he said, an apparent reference to the legal woes that spilled over to members of his administration.
At least 14 people were indicted, including the governor himself, who was charged with scheming to violate state hiring laws. Fletcher issued pardons to everyone but himself.
Prosecutors dropped the misdemeanor charges against Fletcher in a deal, in which he acknowledged that the evidence "strongly indicates wrongdoing" by his administration and that the actions "were inappropriate."
The governor has since maintained that the investigation and resulting indictments were politically motivated by Democrats to lessen his chances of being re-elected.
Beshear and running mate Daniel Mongiardo had spent $5.4 million on his general election campaign by Oct. 26 — $2 million more than Fletcher, according to records from the Kentucky Registry of Election Finance. Both candidates are required to file updated financial reports by mid-December reporting total spending through Election Day.
Beshear left political office in 1987, the year he lost the Democratic primary for governor, after serving as state representative, attorney general and lieutenant governor.
John Mason, a Lexington engineer, said he voted for Beshear even though he wasn't an enthusiastic supporter. "I'm actually voting against Fletcher," Mason said. "I've never seen a guy screw up in a governorship the way he has," Mason said as he left the polls at a small church.
Another Lexington voter, Patrick Galbin, said he voted for Fletcher.
"I think his problems have been mostly politics," Galbin said. "I think he's done a fine job. I think he's got high morals, and that's what the state needs."
Both candidates used religious themes in the campaign. Beshear emphasized his roots as the son of a western Kentucky preacher. On the eve of the election, Fletcher ordered the Ten Commandments to be displayed in the Capitol along with other framed historical documents. He said the timing had nothing to do with the election, though his opponent and political scientists scoffed at that notion.
An ordained Baptist minister, Fletcher tried to get the focus off the hiring scandal by criticizing Beshear on the issue of casinos. Fletcher tried since early in the campaign to paint the governor's race as a referendum on casinos, saying a vote for Beshear would be the same as voting for expanded gambling.
Before the constitution could be changed to legalize casinos, voters would have to approve it in a ballot referendum.
Fletcher aired a series of TV ads vilifying casinos, saying, if legalized in Kentucky, they would bring a number of social ills, including divorce, suicide and prostitution. And in debates, the governor continually raised the issue, saying Beshear's support for a constitutional amendment on gambling shows he is out of touch with Kentucky voters.
Political scientist Kendra Stewart, a professor at Eastern Kentucky University, said some people will argue Beshear won because of his support for gambling. Stewart said, however, that Beshear came out on top because of Fletcher's perceived ethical lapses.
"I wouldn't say it's enough to be a referendum on gambling, but there are certainly politicians who would spin it that way," she said.
Beshear was among them.
"My victory here tonight I think sends a very loud and clear message that the people want to vote on that issue," he said. "People want to make their own decision. They want it put on the ballot. And I hope that the House and Senate get that message, because I think it's a pretty strong message right now."