There is a special election coming. No, I am not speaking of the over-hyped PA election in March (which won’t exist in its current form by November), but rather a small Kentucky House District nestled in the hills surrounding Louisville. KY HD-49 voters will go to the polls Tuesday to decide who should succeed the deceased Dan Johnson. Located in rural Bullitt County, the district is at somewhat of a crossroads demographically. The area is transitioning from a primarily rural/agricultural economy to one of an exuburban/suburban environment. The largest employer in the area is now shoe distributor Zappos.
Transition aside, the district still retains more of its roots than not. The district’s demographics are poor and it has half the percentage of college graduates as the national average. Historically, districts like this anchored the Democratic majority in the Kentucky House (the last Southern legislative chamber to be held by the party). That was until 2016. Johnson claimed a narrow 50.4-49.6 victory as Republicans were crushing rural Democrats statewide, carried by Trump’s coattails. For reference, Trump won the district 72-23.
It is not a stretch to say Johnson was an unorthodox and dismal candidate. His attacks against then Rep. Linda Belcher were brutal and, shall we say, lacked tact. For example, he claimed Belcher had sent Chicago thugs after him and ambushed his truck. He also said Belcher had “personally” killed 80,000 babies. Belcher is pro-choice in a predominately pro-life district. Epitomizing what state Republicans thought of Johnson, State Chairman Mac Brown disowned Johnson after it was discovered Johnson had compared a photo of Obama to a chimpanzee. Despite all this and Belcher’s attempts to localize the race (look at all the money I bring to the district) she lost.
Legislatively, Johnson was a more traditional uber-conservative. He sided with the now solidly controlled GOP legislature on charter schools, right-to-work laws and mandating new abortion restrictions.
For Johnson it all came crashing down when a report revealed he had molested a 17 year old girl on New Year’s Eve in 2012. If that was not bad enough, he had also committed arson to collect insurance, was possibly involved in another arson case with his church, was cited at least three times by Alcohol Beverage Control officers, and was involved in a number of different lies, including that he had served as a United Nations ambassador and White House chaplain to three presidents. The one good part was he was also the pastor who had gave last rites for people who died at the World Trade Center on September 11th.
Merely a day after holding a press conference and denying the allegations, he committed suicide. State Republicans, as much as they did not wish ill on the man, probably breathed a sigh of relief. Governor Matt Bevin called Johnson an embarrassment to the state and state house leaders did not want to touch him. This was also occurring at a time when four House Republicans and former Speaker Jeff Hoover were being accused of harassment.
As befitting the district’s heritage of electing spouses to the post, Johnson’s wife Rebecca stepped up to file. Johnson is as controversial as her husband with a bit more of a softer side. She has embellished her record (who hasn’t in politics), been critical of refugees and joked about domestic violence. But, she has promised to vote for conservative reforms and supports medical marijuana as a way to limit the opioid crisis. Due to her more libertarian tendencies her campaign is being supported by defacto Speaker David Osborne and being run by David Adams, who ran Rand Paul’s 2010 primary campaign.
Utilizing strategies honed from 2010, Adams has Johnson primarily getting her message out via social media. She has played up her opposition to computers being sold without porn blockers and has tried to endear herself to state retirees in the district by opposing the Governor’s pension reforms. By skipping several debates, she is also avoiding Belcher’s obvious attempts to tie her to her husband’s mixed legacy.
Belcher, who as run since 2008, is well-known to the district. A teacher, she was first elected to the district in 2008 after her husband died in a car crash (see what I mean about electing spouses). During the Obama tenure, Kentucky voters gradually realigned from supporting down-ballot Democrats to supporting more and more state Republicans. As the district became more exurban (more Republicans moving into the district to escape the city), the rural Democratic heritage started to fade. Belcher’s tenure illustrates the trend.
Building on the Obama wave in 2008, Belcher won election with 54 percent. She survived 2010 with 50.3 percent, actually lost in 2012 with 47 percent, returned with 53 percent in 2014 and lost in 2016 narrowly. Down-ballot, the district used to give statewide Democrats more than 50 percent of the vote but since 2012 the best any Democratic has been able to garner was 46 percent. Both AG Steven Beshear and SofS Allison Grimes won reelection statewide but lost the district by about seven points.
Perhaps sensing she cannot win on name recognition alone, Belcher has gone after Johnson for her history of statements. She continues to try and localize the race while at the same time trying to use her get out the vote efforts supported by many local and national Democratic groups.
On the policy front, Belcher has highlighted her support for abortion rights (interesting strategy) as well as a need to invest money in infrastructure and addiction treatment programs. She has focused on prior legislation she sponsored to give students access to suicide prevention information as well.
As some Democratic pols have benefited from in red states (see Oklahoma and Missouri), Belcher is hoping she is carried on the waves of an anti-GOP backlash. While the state is trending right the GOP legislative caucus has been unable to move very far on its agenda. From sexual harassment to disagreements on pension reform to education cuts the state GOP just cannot seem to find the groove it had in 2017 with right-to-work and abortion restrictions.
Unsurprisingly, the district is an uphill slog for Belcher despite its history. Blue-collar whites have fled the Democratic party in mass and that is becoming apparent even at the local level. Worse, despite the President’s unpopularity these voters seem to the primary group sticking with the President and by extension the GOP.
Special elections are inherently low turnout affairs. In turn, this has benefited Democrats in the last year as they have flipped many legislative districts BECAUSE turnout has been so low. On average, the districts they’ve flipped in Oklahoma have had turnout levels at 15 percent of a presidential electorate. Even the Florida House district they flipped had barely 40 percent turnout.
Recent history in Kentucky could refute this though. In 2016, Kentucky hosted four competitive special elections for open house districts. Democrats held a narrow 50-46 edge and needed to win these seats to keep their House majority. In low turnout affairs (about 20 percent of Nov. turnout) they held their seats and actually pilfered a GOP seat.
On the other hand, Johnson has not run as bad a campaign as her husband did in 2016. While Belcher may be better known in the district she is also tied to a national party increasingly at odds with its former base. Johnson’s libertarian stance on some issues like drugs actually might be the thing that puts her over the top. Either way, this contest should be much close than Trump’s 62-23 romping in 2016 and reflect the closer nature of local legislative contests.
Depending on the result we can further assess just what the electoral map will look like this November.
To follow along, it might be helpful to look at DKE’s interactive KY House map from a few years ago.