Democrats gained a seat in the Kentucky House of Representatives Tuesday after a special election following the suicide of a GOP lawmaker who had faced sexual assault allegations.
Linda Belcher, a retired teacher and former Democratic state lawmaker, soundly defeated Rebecca Johnson, who was attempting to serve out the remainder of her late husband’s term.
Belcher had lost to Dan Johnson by fewer than 200 votes in 2016.
In December 2017, the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting published an interview with a woman who claimed that Dan Johnson had sexually assaulted her in 2013, when she was 17. The interview was accompanied by pages of police documents.
Amid bipartisan calls for his resignation, Johnson denied the allegations on Facebook on the night of Dec. 13 before shooting and killing himself hours later.
Rebecca Johnson also denied the allegations against her late husband, claiming he was a victim of “an assault from the left.” She refused to concede defeat Tuesday night, citing “widespread voter 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 in a news release. “It’s like we’re in a Third World country.”
Earlier in the day, county election officials discovered residents in a particular subdivision were incorrectly listed as not living in the district. Bullitt County Clerk Kevin Mooney said the problem was fixed and poll workers were instructed to send affected voters to another precinct. Mooney said if all of the affected voters had voted for Johnson, it would not have changed the outcome.
At her campaign headquarters in downtown Shepherdsville, Belcher said she won the election “fair and square.” It’s the third time voters have elected Belcher, who was first elected in 2008 when she replaced her husband on the ballot after he was killed in a car wreck.
Belcher said it was “hard to say” if sexual assault allegations against Dan Johnson and his death played a part in the election, adding: “I have tried to stay very positive and away from that whole situation.”
Belcher told a reporter Bullitt County “has spoken what it wants.”
She added, “It wants honesty and integrity and a very visible person as their state representative.”
Carol Schneider, 65, called Rebecca Johnson “a die-hard, stand-by-your-man kind of woman.” But she voted for Belcher, she said, because Johnson was “hanging on to a bunch of lies and now that he’s dead he’s like this martyr.”
James Carmony, 47, said he wasn’t sure he believed the sexual assault allegations and said he ultimately voted for Johnson because she is a Republican and he believed she would support the state’s GOP governor. “A lot of things like that come out, sometimes they are true and sometimes they are not.”
Tuesday’s election was also one of the first signs in 2018 that Democrats have momentum heading into the pivotal midterm elections two years into Donald Trump’s presidency.
The Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee said it’s at least the 35th contested seat Democrats have taken from Republicans since Trump was inaugurated. And it may have come in the reddest district to date. Trump won Kentucky’s 49th House district in 2016 with more than 72 percent of the vote. On Tuesday, the Democratic candidate won with more than 68 percent of the vote.
“The results here show that if we can win in this district, we can win anywhere,” said Ben Self, chairman of the Kentucky Democratic Party. “I think this shows the entire House, the Kentucky House, is in play.”
Republicans scoffed at that notion, with state GOP spokesman Tres Watson pointing to low turnout and the circumstances of Johnson’s suicide “clouding the outcome.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.