(LOUISVILLE, November 5th, 2003, 11 a.m.) -- Ernie Fletcher claimed a mandate in the Kentucky governor's race and left little room for argument.
Fletcher on Tuesday defeated Attorney General Ben Chandler by better than 108,000 votes -- and ended 32 years in power for the Democrats -- in an election that was watched with interest at the White House and beyond.
With 100 percent of precincts reporting, Fletcher and running mate Steve Pence had 593,489 votes, or 55 percent. Chandler and running mate Charlie Owen had 484,931 votes, or 45 percent.
"We will take this mandate tonight and move this state forward," Fletcher told a gleeful victory party crowd in Lexington.
Fletcher promised to "clean up the mess in Frankfort" and told voters it was time to try a new brand of leadership after a generation of having one party in power. He said the message "resonated in a way I never imagined but hoped for."
Fletcher got a big assist from President Bush, who made two trips to the state on his behalf in the last month, but also capitalized on voter disgust with Gov. Paul Patton's extramarital affair and other scandals in the Patton administration.
Chandler, the first Democrat since 1967 to lose a gubernatorial election, tried to convince voters they could have reform without changing parties. Chandler also ran against the national economy and rising unemployment. He characterized Fletcher, the 6th District congressman, as a dependable vote for Bush's economic policies.
"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."
Turnout was a mediocre 39.8 percent of Kentucky's 2.7 million registered voters. Nearly three in five are Democrats, and low turnout usually benefits the GOP.
Fletcher carried 86 counties, including his home, Fayette County, and most of the rest of central Kentucky, which he represents in Congress. He also carried the northern Kentucky trio of Boone, Kenton and Campbell counties and the important counties of Daviess, Christian, McCracken and Warren in western and southern Kentucky.
Chandler carried Jefferson County, but by a comparatively modest 6,000 votes out of more than 205,000 cast. Otherwise, his votes came largely from clusters of small counties in the eastern coalfields and western counties on the fringes of Owensboro.
Republicans also won two other races. Former University of Kentucky basketball player Richie Farmer was elected agriculture commissioner and was the No. 2 vote getter in the election. Trey Grayson, a lawyer from northern Kentucky, was elected secretary of state.
Democrats managed to hold onto the offices of attorney general and auditor. In addition, state Treasurer Jonathan Miller, the only officeholder eligible to seek another term, was re-elected. Democratic Lt. Gov. Steve Henry had been organizing a campaign for governor but became embroiled in federal lawsuits over billings in his private medical practice and did not enter the race.
Until Tuesday, the GOP had not won a constitutional state office since 1967, an era in which the governor and lieutenant governor were elected separately.
Bush and his brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, telephoned to congratulate Fletcher. Both came to Kentucky to campaign for Fletcher and help him raise money. Fletcher said he also got a "very gracious" call from Chandler.
Chandler publicly conceded defeat at 8:20 p.m. EST. He said he congratulated Fletcher and Pence "and wished them well for the challenges that lie ahead. I told the Governor-elect he can count on me and Charlie Owen and all Kentuckians to help him with the difficult task of leading this great state."
The state is facing a $262 million shortfall in the current fiscal year, and Patton said he would leave its solution to his successor and the General Assembly. Fletcher has sworn not to raise taxes. Only Chandler had proposed an alternative revenue source -- expanded gaming, most likely with slot machines at race tracks.
Patton issued a statement in which he said "the leadership of Kentucky has passed to a new individual and a new generation."
"I hope that Governor-Elect Fletcher is successful because the future of Kentucky depends on it. I wish him well," Patton's statement said.
Patton was barred by the constitution from running for a third term. The fallout from his admitted affair and an assortment of investigations of the state's highway agency, hung over the Democratic campaign like a cloud. He avoided political events, and his office said he spent Tuesday night at home.
Republicans especially targeted the auditor's race, where Democrat Crit Luallen had been the top official in Patton's cabinet. Republican candidate Linda Greenwell made her campaign an attack on Luallen's association with Patton but lost by 15,000 votes and 2 percentage points.
Williams, the Republican chairwoman, said Bush's influence in Fletcher's victory could not be discounted, especially in western Kentucky, which both campaigns said was a crucial area. The region is largely Democratic by registration but also deeply conservative and regularly sends Republicans to Congress.
Bush visited the area on Saturday, headlining a rally at Paducah, before going on to London in historically Republican southeastern Kentucky.
Chandler carried Franklin County, home of the capital, by a scant 1,300 votes out of more than 19,500 cast. Democrats have a 5-1 registration advantage but the county's top elected official, Judge-Executive Teresa Barton, headed a statewide Democrats for Fletcher organization.
Former Gov. Louie Nunn, the last Republican to win the office until Tuesday, said Fletcher was the beneficiary of a united, well-organized and well-funded Republican Party.
"When I was a candidate, the state had a highly respected governor. The Democrat Party was well organized and they had all the money," Nunn said. "The situation was reversed in this campaign."
But Nunn has always been a contrarian in his own party, and he said more could have been done for Republican candidates lower on the ballot because "it was obvious going in that Fletcher was going to be a winner."