Republican Dan Johnson posted messages on Facebook that displayed prejudice toward black people, Muslims and others during his campaign for a seat in the Kentucky House of Representatives. He talked of white pride and Southern secession; he shared at least three pictures showing President Obama as an ape. He also aired videos in which he accused his opponent, Democratic Rep. Linda Belcher, of murdering 80,000 babies, and he said she hired “Chicago thugs” to terrorize his family.
“The Islam-crat Barack Obama — Criminal Clinton, Criminal Hillary — and Lyin’ Linda, and you know what? They have sent Chicago thugs after me. Chicago thugs after me! They came to my house, they came to our church,” Johnson said in a video posted Oct. 28. “Threatening my life, threatening my grand-babies’ life. … That’s who Linda Belcher has put on me.”
Embarrassed by Johnson’s behavior, on Oct. 1, the Republican Party of Kentucky and House Minority Floor Leader Jeff Hoover called on him to drop out of the race.
Instead, he won, narrowly defeating Belcher, a three-term incumbent, by a vote of 9,342 to 9,186. Johnson will represent Bullitt County’s 49th House District in the General Assembly for the next two years.
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“Special thanks to GOD, my campaign manager,” Johnson wrote on Facebook the day after the election. “MILLIONS OF DOLLARS IN MEDIA SPENT AGAINST ME, BUT LOOK WHAT GOD HAS DONE!”
Drawing a parallel to the presidential contest, where Republican nominee Donald Trump made controversial statements about women, Mexicans, Muslims and others, some voters here said they don’t worry about a candidate’s inflammatory conduct as long as they believe he represents their conservative values.
I heard something about him posting a picture with apes as the Obamas. And I didn’t like that. But we all do stupid things once in a while, right?
Linda Boggs, 63, of Shepherdsville
“I heard something about him posting a picture with apes as the Obamas. And I didn’t like that. But we all do stupid things once in a while, right?” said Linda Boggs, 63, cutting hair in the county seat of Shepherdsville.
“I voted straight Republican ticket,” Boggs said. “I am a Christian. I don’t believe in abortion. We do have guns, my husband and myself, we carry, and I don’t want to see our guns taken away. So those are things that are important to me.”
Like Boggs, 44 percent of the roughly 36,000 voters who cast ballots in Bullitt County this month pushed the button for a straight party ticket, most of them Republican. If that pattern held among the more than 18,000 people who voted in the 49th House district, that means the majority of people who chose Dan Johnson selected him individually.
Bullitt County is a working-class suburb 20 minutes south of Louisville. Ninety-seven percent of its 78,702 people are white. Most adults have a high school diploma, but only 13 percent graduated from college. This is the sort of place where Trump caught fire in the presidential election. In fact, Trump won nearly three-fourths of the county’s votes, even better than he did statewide, and Johnson closely aligned himself with Trump during his House campaign.
The county also has an uncomfortable history with racism. The Ku Klux Klan was openly active in Shepherdsville as late as the 1970s, with hundreds of white-hooded men marching through its streets. More recently, in 2014, a county fire chief was caught on video saying “We ain’t taking no niggers here” after he was asked to assist stranded black motorists from out of town. The chief later called it “a slip of the tongue.”
Sharing pictures that compare black people to apes is not a deal-breaker in Bullitt County politics.
The general public obviously didn’t give a rat’s butt about it, because they elected him. What you put on Facebook has nothing to do with how fed up people are with the establishment.
John Simpson, who sells guns at a Mount Washington store
“The only people who cared about that were reporters. The general public obviously didn’t give a rat’s butt about it, because they elected him,” said John Simpson, who sells guns at a Mount Washington store near Johnson’s home. “What you put on Facebook has nothing to do with how fed up people are with the establishment.”
Criticism from state GOP leaders didn’t hurt Johnson any more than Trump suffered when national GOP leaders distanced themselves from him, Simpson added.
“Party leaders aren’t leading anyone much anymore, are they? The voters don’t seem to care what they think,” Simpson said.
Following the election, Hoover — soon to be speaker in the newly GOP-controlled House — said he will be having a conversation with Johnson about the professional conduct expected of a member of the General Assembly.
Johnson did not return calls seeking comment for this story. A sign at the gate in front of his home suggests that trespassers will be shot.
In statements to reporters during the campaign, Johnson said “I really don’t think I’ve done anything as someone to be a racist” and promised to “take a sledgehammer to the status quo in Frankfort.”
“I appreciate all the support I’ve been given here in the district and look forward to being part of making Kentucky great again,” he said Oct. 4.
The lawmaker Johnson ousted, Linda Belcher, 67, was a retired educator who campaigned as a moderate Democrat with the endorsement of the National Rifle Association and a history of working closely with Republicans in Frankfort, including Gov. Matt Bevin. Belcher touted $170 million that she brought home for road projects, including a new Interstate 65 interchange. She also spoke of her work as chairwoman of a bipartisan task force investigating child abuse.
Belcher did not return calls seeking comment. But a supporter said she “got run over by Donald Trump’s coattails.”
“Linda Belcher has done a whole lot for us,” said Bruce Thomason, a Shepherdsville real estate agent who recited a list of traffic lights, widened intersections and other roadway improvements that Belcher made possible with state funds. “You see her at fiscal court meetings, you see her at city council meetings. She’s constantly out there talking to people about what this community needs.”
On the Republican side, Johnson was a last-minute choice. Bullitt County Judge-Executive Melanie Roberts originally filed to run against Belcher. But Roberts withdrew from the race last spring. The woman who later won the GOP primary, Jennifer Stepp, was disqualified for filling out her paperwork incorrectly. That left the county GOP scrambling to find a replacement House candidate.
Party officials settled on Johnson, 56, a Tea Party activist with community ties through the Heart of Fire Ministries, a religious organization he runs down the road in Louisville. The Heart of Fire is part evangelical church, part motorcycle bar. Its Heart of Fire Gun Choir belts out spiritual classics while the singers hold an assortment of pistols and AK-47s. There are liquor signs in the windows of its clubhouse and a yellow “Don’t Tread On Me” flag waving out front.
“I believe Jesus taught us to be armed,” Johnson said in a 2014 interview, cradling an AK-47. “The real reason for our Second Amendment rights is that we have a gun to keep our mean-spirited government off of us. If they go crazy, we’ve gotta have something to go crazier with.”
‘I hate her,’ ‘She is evil’
Cut off from the usual fund-raising sources by irritated state Republican leaders, Johnson had only a few thousand dollars to promote himself, compared to Belcher’s $46,590. He skipped the traditional debate organized for their race by the local chamber of commerce and newspaper.
Most of Johnson’s campaigning was done through his Facebook pages, where he declared his opposition to abortion, Islam, gun control, welfare, Common Core educational standards, the Affordable Care Act, same-sex marriage and “perverts who want to use our daughters’ bathrooms.” He denounced “Bloody Lyin’ Linda” as “a baby killer.” He paused in at least one video attack to announce Belcher’s home address, for anyone curious as to where she lived.
After Johnson posted a video in which he accused Belcher of participation in “the United Nations’ gun grab,” one of his followers commented, “She’s a baby killing b****. All she cares about is Black Lives Matter hate groups. I hate her. Keep it real, Dan.” Another wrote, “She is evil, I pray people wake up.”
However unorthodox his tactics were, Johnson clearly struck a chord, said Rebekah Witherington, chairwoman of the Bullitt County Democratic Party.
“The negativity, the hatefulness, the blatant lies that were spread about Linda Belcher by Mr. Johnson on Facebook and other social media — I don’t think we were prepared for that,” Witherington said.
It was difficult to fact-check what Johnson said because he stayed within the bubble of his own social media, rather than attending public forums where candidates can be challenged to defend their statements, Witherington said.
“He said Linda hired ‘Chicago thugs’ to threaten him and his family. Well, that simply never happened. That wasn’t true,” she said. “He said Linda wanted to take away everyone’s guns. Well, Linda has a concealed-carry permit, and the NRA endorsed her, so that isn’t true, either.”
“But if you hear something long enough, for a lot of people, it eventually becomes true. With enough repetition, you can create a monster. And you have a younger generation that gets most of its information from its phone.”
Because Johnson won by barely 150 votes, Belcher asked for a recanvass, a verification of the accuracy of the totals reported by each voting machine.
I do want to say, this is not a racist or an intolerant community, and I would not want to see us painted that way.
Bullitt County Clerk Kevin Mooney
Bullitt County Clerk Kevin Mooney oversaw the recanvass Thursday. The results didn’t change. Johnson is still going to Frankfort in January.
Asked for his thoughts on Johnson’s House campaign, Mooney initially demurred.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t try to analyze these races. My job is to put on the elections, and we allow anyone who is interested in participating in the process to do so.”
But after a pause, Mooney cleared his throat.
“I do want to say, this is not a racist or an intolerant community, and I would not want to see us painted that way,” he said. “The people here are good. And yes, there was some concern raised by the things he did. But a lot of people also saw it as a matter of freedom of speech. From their perspective, what he said may have been offensive, but he had the right to say it.”