By Charles Wolfe
The Associated Press
LOUISVILLE - Republican Ernie Fletcher, who promised to "clean up the mess" from 32 years of Democratic rule in the Kentucky Capitol, was elected governor Tuesday by a decisive margin over state Attorney General Ben Chandler.
With 100 percent of precincts reporting, Fletcher had 593,508 votes, or 55 percent, and Chandler had 484,938, or 45 percent.
"This really is an historical moment for this state," Fletcher said. "I never dreamed we'd win by the margin we won by."
Fletcher said the theme of his campaign - that it was time for a change in the state's leadership after a generation of having one party in power - "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 mainly capitalized on voter disgust or disaffection following Gov. Paul Patton's extramarital affair and other scandals in the Patton administration.
"Republicans have very handily hung that noose around every Democrat's neck," said Susan Westrom, state Democratic chairwoman.
Chandler, who failed to keep his party's winning streak alive, sought to convince voters they could have reform without changing parties.
Fletcher, a congressman from Lexington, got congratulatory calls from Bush and his brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, both of whom came to Kentucky to campaign for Fletcher and help him raise money. Fletcher said he also got a "very gracious" call from Chandler.
"It just doesn't get any better than this," Fletcher said. "I'm humbled by it all." A former fighter pilot based in Alaska, he compared the feeling of victory to flying in an Air Force jet and seeing the northern lights.
Chandler publicly conceded defeat at 8:20 p.m. He said he told Fletcher he "wished him well for the challenges that lie ahead."
He called on other Democrats to help Fletcher "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.
Patton sent Fletcher a letter of congratulations, wishing him "a rewarding and productive tenure."
In a public statement, Patton 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 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. His office said he spent Tuesday night at home.
Republican chairwoman Ellen Williams said the "message of change" that Fletcher preached throughout his campaign "has resonated with the voters of Kentucky."
It apparently helped some others on the ticket as well. Republicans won elections for two other offices - secretary of state and commissioner of agriculture. The GOP had not won a constitutional state office since 1967.
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