MOUNT WASHINGTON, Ky. – Voters in a Louisville, Kentucky, suburb will soon choose a successor for a Republican state lawmaker who killed himself last year after a woman publicly accused him of sexually assaulting her in his basement when she was a teenager and he was her pastor.
The race offers the first test of whether there's a Trump backlash in Kentucky, a state the Republican president dominated in 2016. But the volatile circumstances complicate Democrats' efforts to reverse their fortunes in a state that has turned decisively against them in recent years.
Dan Johnson killed himself in December after adamantly denying the sexual assault allegations from the pulpit of his church. The special election to replace him is Tuesday, and Johnson's widow, Rebecca, is the Republican nominee. She announced her candidacy the day after Johnson's death and says her campaign is in response to "an assault from the left that wasn't true."
"Just because they took my husband out doesn't mean they are going to take me out," she said.
The allegations against Johnson were first reported by the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting. Their story was backed up by on-the-record comments from the victim, plus pages of documents from a police investigation that was closed under questionable circumstances. The story prompted the authorities to reopen the investigation before Johnson shot himself at the end of a bridge on a rural road.
Johnson fiercely denied the sexual assault before his death, and his widow does the same. But the allegations don't end there. The couple led a church, Heart of Fire Ministries, in Louisville. The Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting shows Dan Johnson had been cited three times for selling alcohol without a license. Rebecca Johnson was not listed on those citations.
The church, which Rebecca Johnson now leads, has been cited many times for unpaid taxes and has had multiple liens and lawsuits over unpaid bills.
"I'm not going to get into the past. There is not enough time in the day to go over all of that," Johnson said when asked about those issues.
The Democratic candidate, Linda Belcher, knows how it feels to run for office shortly after losing a spouse. Her husband, Larry Belcher, represented House district 49 for four years. He was killed in a car accident in October 2008, weeks before the general election. Gov. Steve Beshear asked Linda Belcher to replace him on the ballot. She did, and was elected.
"I understand her heartbreak. But no, I don't identify with her," Belcher said of Johnson.
She added, "I have no idea how she feels about the suicide. But you know, what we need to do is put all those things aside. Let's hear the issues, let's hear what the people have to say that are running and elect the person that is going to do the best job."
While Kentucky leans strongly Republican, Belcher is a strong candidate. She lost to Dan Johnson in 2016 by fewer than 200 votes. She earned 49.6 percent of the vote in a district that Donald Trump won with 72 percent. Now, she is back on the ballot two years into a tumultuous Trump presidency that has energized Democratic voters. Plus, she's a retired school teacher in a state where Republican proposals to change the public retirement system have prompted a backlash from educators and state workers.
"I think people have buyer's remorse," Belcher said.
Johnson has declined to attend at least two public forums with her Democratic opponent, citing scheduling conflicts. But she has visited the homes of registered GOP voters on a list the state Republican Party gave her. In the frigid February weather, she often campaigns wearing her husband's aviator lamb-skin hat.
Tuesday, Johnson visited several homes. She always knocked — "friends and family knock, strangers ring the doorbell" — and introduced herself as "running for my husband's seat." Nearly everyone greeted her warmly and said she had their vote. None asked about her husband or the allegations.
"They are polite. They don't bring up stuff like that," Johnson said.
Belcher leads Johnson in fundraising. She has TV ads running this weekend on CNN and MSNBC. And Kentucky Family Values, a Democratic political action committee, has paid for radio ads touting Belcher as a Christian and a retired educator.
The radio ads make no mention of Johnson or her husband. Belcher said she knew of the allegations against Johnson in 2016, including that he had been investigated for sexual assault. But she never used any of them.
"That's not the type of person I am," Belcher said. "It is the job of the voters to do the research and find out what's going on. It was not my job to tell them those things."