Democratic challenger Steve Beshear raised it in his opening remarks and at points throughout a televised debate on Wednesday evening, saying Fletcher's political and legal troubles had hurt the state from progressing during the past four years.
“Kentucky government today is in a state of moral and ethical bankruptcy,” Beshear told an audience at Northern Kentucky University. “We've had four years of scandal, we've had four years of corruption, we've had four years of pardons and indictments, and people all over this state are crying out for change.”
Fletcher countered, however, saying that an entrenched political attitude resulting from decades of Democratic rule in Frankfort had hindered his first-term efforts. Fletcher, who was the first Republican governor in more than 30 years, called Beshear a Frankfort insider and blamed Democratic politicians for many of Kentucky's current problems.
“They fought me tooth and nail along the way because we began to unravel the tentacles of a system that had been there for years,” Fletcher said, referring to Democratic lawmakers. “They did everything they could to try to stop us, but we kept our eye on the ball.”
The debate aired on WCPO-TV in Cincinnati, WKYT-TV in Lexington and WAVE-TV in Louisville.
Fletcher and Beshear also differed on hot-button topics such as abortion, intelligent design and whether Kentucky voters should legalize casino gambling.
Fletcher, an ordained Baptist minister, said he opposes abortion rights and legalizing casino gambling in Kentucky and supports the teaching of intelligent design, which attributes the existence of complex organisms to an unidentified intelligent cause, in schools.
Fletcher called Beshear's plan for increasing state coffers with money from casino gambling “fool's gold and false promise” that will hurt families.
“It ruins families, it's not the kind of Kentucky values we want,” Fletcher said.
Beshear, meanwhile, said he supports casino gambling, opposes the teaching of intelligent design in schools and believes that abortion decisions should be left up to individual families, not the state.
“Abortion is a tragedy anytime it happens, under any circumstances, and as governor, I'm going to do everything I can to make sure that women have choices other than that,” Beshear said.
Political scientists said they don't expect the debate to have much impact on the governor's race, which, according to two news organization polls, Beshear is leading by 17 to 20 percentage points.
“People don't watch debates,” said political scientist Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. “The informed voters will be the only ones watching. They tune in to cheer for their sides.”
Fletcher was indicted in 2005 on charges that he violated state hiring laws in a scheme to reward political supporters with state jobs. The indictment was later dropped in a negotiated settlement with prosecutors, and Fletcher has since maintained that the charges were politically motivated.
On the campaign trail, Beshear has been hammering away at the Republican administration's hiring scandal. In his first television ad of the general election campaign, Beshear stands in front of the state Capitol and vows “to finally clean this place up.” Earlier this week, Beshear began airing a TV ad featuring newspaper headlines about the hiring scandal.
Fletcher has tried to frame the election as a referendum on casinos rather than on his first term. He says Kentuckians who don't want casinos should vote for him, and that those who do should support Beshear, a former lieutenant governor and attorney general.
Beshear says taxes from casinos could help fund education, health care, economic development and other initiatives. He said Kentuckians already spend huge amounts at casinos over the state line in Indiana and Illinois.
Earlier this week, the Fletcher campaign began airing a TV ad attacking Beshear for his former law firm's handling of a corporate bankruptcy case. It criticizes Beshear and his former law firm, Stites & Harbison of Lexington, for their role in the liquidation of the now-defunct Kentucky Central Life Insurance Co. Beshear's law firm was paid $21 million over 15 years for assisting in the liquidation of Kentucky Central.
The huge corporation that owned citrus groves, hotels, Lexington TV stations and $42 billion worth of life insurance policies was overtaken with financial woes in the early 1990s, and Beshear's law firm was hired to assist with its liquidation after it failed.
The ad claims that Beshear and his firm prospered while hundreds of Kentuckians lost their jobs and thousands lost their savings.
The ad also points out that Beshear was removed from the case in 1995 after a Cincinnati law firm was hired to look into whether Stites & Harbison had a conflict of interest. The possible conflict involved the firm representing the Bank of Louisville on a transaction involving $15 million in Kentucky Central's securities.
Beshear has acknowledged that he was removed from the case temporarily but was reassigned to it on the recommendation of a court official who presided over the conflict of interest issue.
Fletcher questioned Beshear about his role in the case during the debate.
“Neither my firm, nor I, have done anything wrong,” Beshear said of the case.