Democrats Flip Kentucky House Seat in Race Against Lawmaker's Widow

by | February 21, 2018

By Daniel Desrochers

Democrat Linda Belcher is heading back to Frankfort, giving her party fresh hope of retaking the Kentucky House of Representatives this fall.

Belcher easily defeated Republican Rebecca Johnson, the widow of a lawmaker who killed himself in December following allegations that the molested a 17-year-old girl in 2012, in a special election held Tuesday. Belcher, a former state lawmaker who collected 68.45 percent of the vote, will represent Bullitt County's 49th House District for the remainder of the 2018 legislative session.

Amid a contentious pension debate in Frankfort and a national movement of women speaking out against sexual assault and harassment, Belcher is the type of candidate Democrats recruited heavily for the 2018 general election: a woman and a former educator.

"We just won this district by more than 30 percentage points, where Trump won 73 percent of the vote," said Ben Self, chairman of the Kentucky Democratic Party. "This just shows that the entire House is up for grabs this fall."

After her defeat, Johnson alleged voting fraud.

"I've heard from and about people all day long saying they went to vote for me at the correct polling place and were refused the opportunity to vote," Johnson said. "It's like we're in a third world country."

The Secretary of State's Office, which oversees elections, said it did not receive any complaints about voter fraud.

Special elections for Kentucky legislative seats typically have low voter turnout -- about 15 percent of registered voters cast a ballot Tuesday -- a point that Republicans focused on when talking about their loss.

"Tonight's special election has been anything but normal from the beginning and offers little resemblance to what we should expect in November," said Tres Watson, the spokesman for the Republican Party of Kentucky.

Rebecca Johnson declared her candidacy less than 24 hours after her husband, former Rep. Dan Johnson, R-Mt. Washington, killed himself.

"Dan is gone but the story of his life is far from over," she said at the time. "These high-tech lynchings and half truths can't be allowed to win the day. I've been fighting behind my husband for thirty years and his fight will go on."

That legacy was complicated. Dan Johnson narrowly defeated Belcher in the 2016 general election after the Republican Party of Kentucky denounced him for posting racist images on his Facebook page. They denounced him again, a little over a year later, after the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting revealed that Johnson was once indicted for attempted arson, had claimed to raise a man from the dead and allegedly molested a 17-year-old girl.

Rebecca Johnson, who often held meet-and-greet events in bars and restaurants, skipped the race's only debate, citing a campaign conflict.

Democrats, on the other hand, invested heavily in the race. The party purchased television ads and sent high-profile Kentucky Democrats to the district to campaign and canvas for Belcher, including Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes and Attorney General Andy Beshear.

Republicans hold a super majority in the Kentucky House of Representatives, controlling 62 of 100 seats. Following Belcher's win, Democrats hold 37 seats and a second special election will be held next week to fill one remaining vacant seat. Republicans took control of the chamber for the first time in nearly a century after the 2016 election.

Meanwhile, Johnson has filed as a candidate in the May Republican primary for the 49th District. Should she win the primary against Thomas Huff of Shepherdsville, she would face Belcher again in the general election.

Belcher's victory marked the 37th Democratic victory in a Republican-held state legislative seat since the start of 2017. One week earlier, Democrats won an upset victory in Sarasota, Florida; one week before that, the party flipped control of a legislative seat in Missouri.

The Washington Post contributed to this report.

(c)2018 the Lexington Herald-Leader (Lexington, Ky.)