FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) - The governor's second in command jumped ship on Monday and endorsed an opponent in the May 22 primary election.
Lt. Gov. Steve Pence threw his support to former Congresswoman Anne Northup, a Louisville Republican who entered the governor's race saying the incumbent's legal turmoil has rendered him politically vulnerable to Democrats.
"She is the better candidate for the Republican party," Pence said. "She has a real chance of winning."
Pence, who had already refused to run for re-election with Gov. Ernie Fletcher, had publicly questioned whether the first Republican governor elected in Kentucky in more than 30 years could win re-election in the wake of a grand jury investigation into the administration's hiring practices.
Fletcher drew two Republican opponents, Northup and Paducah businessman Billy Harper, both of whom say the first-term governor has been damaged beyond political repair and would be a weak candidate to put up against Democrats in the November election.
Seven Democrats also are vying for the job, and they, too, have been sharply criticizing Fletcher.
The governor was indicted last year on charges that he illegally rewarded political supporters with protected state jobs. The indictment was dismissed in a deal with prosecutors, but the special grand jury later issued its findings in the case, saying Fletcher had approved a "widespread and coordinated plan" to skirt state hiring laws.
Fletcher has maintained that the investigation was politically motivated.
Pence said he initially ran with Fletcher on a mission to change the culture in Frankfort that rewarded political supporters and punished opponents, but now questioned whether that mission was accomplished.
"The Republican Party must have a candidate who can get beyond the scandals of this administration," Pence said.
Northup said the endorsement from Pence is important to her campaign.
"He has a clear vision of what happened and what should have happened," Northup said.
Eastern Kentucky University political scientist Kendra Stewart said Pence's endorsement is very unusual.
"That certainly is a coup for the Northup campaign," Stewart said. "It demonstrates the dissension in the Republican party at this time."
Kentucky is one of three states that will elect a governor in
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