The Democratic Party’s run of good news in state legislative races continued Tuesday night, with a former legislator beaten in the 2016 Republican wave reclaiming a seat held briefly by a pastor who committed suicide after being accused of molesting a teenage girl.
Linda Belcher, a Democrat first elected in 2008, won the special election for Kentucky’s 49th District with 68.45 percent of the vote. In 2016, as Donald Trump won Kentucky by the biggest margin of any Republican presidential candidate in history, Belcher lost by just 156 votes to Republican pastor Dan Johnson. Trump’s margin in the district, 72-23, was part of a rout that helped Republicans seize total political control of Kentucky for the first time in 96 years.
In office, Johnson helped Republicans pass the ambitious conservative agenda of Gov. Matt Bevin (R), making Kentucky a right-to-work state and banning abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy. But in December 2017, during a wave of #MeToo revelations across state capitols, the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting published a lengthy investigation of Johnson’s conduct at his church, revealing that he had sexually abused a 17-year-old girl. Days after the story was published, Johnson was found dead of a gunshot wound to the head.
A special election followed, with Johnson’s widow, Rebecca, winning the Republican nomination to replace him. “I believe the voters of Bullitt County deserve to have the person that they put in office,” Rebecca Johnson told the Courier Journal. “I’m the other half of that person.”
In the end, Belcher easily defeated Johnson, marking 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, Fla.; one week before that, the party flipped control of a legislative seat in Missouri.