The bar was crowded at Half-Time’s Bar and Grill, but the tables reserved for Rebecca Johnson’s meet and greet were not.
A few trays of appetizers cooled to the side as Johnson sat with three other people at a table for 30 minutes. She didn’t work the room, there were no campaign signs. It looked like a woman meeting friends at the local bar to watch the University of Louisville take on Georgia Tech.
Johnson declared her candidacy in the special election to represent the 49th District in the Kentucky House of Representatives less than 24 hours after the incumbent, her husband, killed himself with a .40 caliber pistol next to a bridge in Bullitt County.
“Dan is gone but the story of his life is far from over,” Rebecca Johnson said in a statement 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.”
In the time since, she has attempted to run a campaign centered on continuing the work her husband started in Frankfort. Doing so requires navigating — and embracing — a troubled legacy: one that started with accusations of racism and ended with allegations that he molested a 17-year-old girl.
It’s a legacy that Democrats, seeing an opportunity to pick up a House seat in the midst of a contentious legislative session, have tried to seize on. The Kentucky Democratic Party has invested heavily in the race, sending big-name Kentucky Democrats to campaign for Linda Belcher in a swing-district that could be seen as a bellwether for whether the state will see a “Blue wave” in November.
In a fundraising email sent out last week by former Gov. Steve Beshear in support of Belcher, the Democratic incumbent who lost in 2016 and is running again in the special election, the former governor said Rebecca Johnson was unapologetic for her husband’s “racism, deception and hypocrisy.”
“Racists, sexual predators, liars, and criminals have no place serving in public office,” the email said. “There was a time when everyone, regardless of political party, would have unambiguously agreed with such a statement. Unfortunately, we’re living in a new reality. Facts don’t seem to matter. Decency is apparently irrelevant. Political gamesmanship takes precedence over doing the right thing.”
Johnson said her response to the email was to “laugh out loud.”
The Republican Party of Kentucky has given its support to Johnson as she promises to continue her husband’s agenda, despite the fact that it formally denounced him on two separate occasions. Johnson has received a donation from House Speaker Pro Tempore David Osborne, R-Prospect; State Sen. Dan Seum, R-Fairdale, has campaigned for her and the party has helped her raise money.
But Johnson’s campaign tactics look more like her husband’s than those sanctioned by the party. Like her husband, she has made controversial posts on Facebook, including odes to the Confederate flag. She still serves an important role in the Heart of Fire Church, which has been cited for multiple alcohol violations, according to the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting. She’s campaigning on some of his pet issues, including a bill that would make it illegal for computers to be sold in Kentucky without a pornography blocker.
Aside from a few meet-and-greet events and canvasses, she’s mostly using Facebook to get her message out. She skipped the race’s only debate, just like her husband did in 2016.
“That race was won in 2016 as a local race without the party’s intervention,” said Tres Watson, the spokesman for the Republican Party of Kentucky. “They’re running a grassroots campaign.”
But there is one big difference from 2016: the political climate.
The Republican lawmakers who swept into power in Frankfort amidst the election of Donald Trump have faced a difficult time at the Capitol lately. Amid an ongoing sexual harassment scandal in the House of Representatives, Republican leadership has faced severe backlash across the state over Gov. Matt Bevin’s proposal to reform the state’s ailing pension system and his proposed budget cuts.
Johnson has already distanced herself from Bevin’s proposed pension changes and she’s campaigning on a pledge to defend teacher’s pensions. But Belcher, as a woman and former teacher, represents the exact demographic Kentucky Democrats have tried to target in their effort to win back seats in Frankfort.
While stumping for Belcher at a campaign event in Shepherdsville Saturday, Democratic Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes pointed out that Belcher was one of the 40 teachers that filed to run for office in 2018 and one of nearly 100 educators.
“She is a fighter for women and children,” Grimes said. “She knows that women’s issues aren’t just related to women, they are family issues.”
Belcher first won office shortly after her husband, a state representative, died in a car accident while coming home from a campaign stop in October 2008. Since then, Belcher has served on and off in the House of Representatives, losing in 2012 and 2016, but winning the off-year elections.
The campaign in 2016 was particularly brutal for Belcher as Dan Johnson launched several attacks at her, claiming she personally murdered 80,000 babies and that she had hired “Chicago thugs” to terrorize his family.
His campaign against Belcher continued up until the day before his suicide, when he claimed in a rambling answer to a question that Belcher was behind the multiple allegations against him.
“A lot of this got produced from Linda Belcher,” Johnson said in a December press conference denying the claims against him. “She has promoted this.”
Belcher has denied all of Johnson’s claims and said she has made a consistent attempt to “rise above” Johnson’s rhetoric to focuses on her credentials as a candidate.
Even though she lost by Johnson by 156 votes, Belcher stands by her decision not to engage with him, but wonders if the things he said about her had an affect on the race.
“I don’t know if some people believed all that negative stuff, but it may have played a part in it,” Belcher said.
This time around, the rhetoric has eased. Aside from the email from Beshear, which Belcher said she wouldn’t have written, and a false claim from Rebecca Johnson that most of Belcher’s money came from out of state, the campaign rhetoric has stuck to the issues.
That could be due to the nature of special elections. Since special elections traditionally have a much lower turnout, especially compared to a presidential year, the campaigns focus more on getting people to vote than discouraging people from voting for the other candidate.
“This turnout in this special election, it’s going to be slim.,” Grimes told Belcher volunteers in the old Bullitt County bank. “My hope is that I’m not certifying an election by one or two votes, but rather you are sending a resounding message, a very strong message, not only to the people here in the 49th district as to what’s going to happen in November, but the people all across this state.”
Belcher, Grimes and Watson all said they didn’t think the race would be a referendum on whether a blue wave would sweep through Kentucky in 2018. Instead, they talked about the importance of getting their people out to vote.
Watson said he didn’t think the Democrats’ decision to bring in recognizable names would make much of a difference.
“I don’t know how much what the Democratic Party is doing will have an effect because this is all about hand-to-hand combat in the streets.”
As her volunteers knocked on doors, sent postcards and called potential voters, Belcher said she was optimistic about her chances Tuesday.
“Many of the Republicans have been voting straight party,” she said. “I think it’s going to be different this time. We’ve had a lot of Republicans who have said they want to see a change from Mr. Johnson and Mrs. Johnson.”