SHEPHERDSVILLE, Ky. – A special election in a Kentucky House district on Tuesday turned into a referendum of sorts on the #metoo movement as voters decide who will replace a former Republican lawmaker and pastor who killed himself in December after facing allegations of sexual assault.
Former Rep. Dan Johnson was elected in 2016, part of a wave that gave Republicans control of the Kentucky House of Representatives for the first time in nearly 100 years.
But late last year, the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting published an account from a woman who said Johnson sexually assaulted her in his basement when she was a teenager. The story was backed up by pages of police documents.
Johnson declared his innocence from the pulpit of his church, but the next day shot himself at the end of a bridge on a rural road just south of Louisville.
Less than 24 hours later, Johnson's widow, Rebecca, announced her candidacy to replace him in the legislature. She called her husband a victim of "an assault from the left that wasn't true."
The Democrat in the race, Linda Belcher, is a retired teacher and former state representative who narrowly lost to Dan Johnson in 2016. Belcher said she knew about the sexual assault allegations in 2016, but chose not to talk about them because "that's not the type of person I am."
Johnson's death comes as powerful men across the country have been accused of sexual misconduct. On Tuesday, voters grappled with Dan Johnson's legacy and his wife's defense of him.
Rebecca Johnson "is a die hard, stand by your man kind of woman. I respect her for that. But I think she's hanging on to a bunch of lies and now that he's dead he's like this martyr," said 65-year-old Carol Schneider, who voted for Belcher.
Deborah Bleemel said she was a Democrat who voted for former President Barack Obama twice. But anger over immigration policies had her change her party registration to independent.
She voted for Rebecca Johnson, she said, because "I don't care about personal life."
"Everyone of us is imperfect. And I voted for Clinton and look what he did," Bleemel said of the former president. "Everybody's got skeletons. ... I don't care about that."
It's the first major midterm election in Kentucky, and Democrats are hoping a victory will add to their momentum heading into the pivotal November elections seen by many as a crucial test of President Donald Trump's staying power. The Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee says since Trump's election, Democrats have flipped 34 contested seats across the country.
But Tuesday's special election is expected to have a low turnout, making it difficult to judge the results as indicative of a larger trend.
Johnson has campaigned mostly on her husband's legacy, saying she would pick up where he left off. She also said she supports legalizing medical marijuana.
Belcher has campaigned on her experience, having held the seats for six years before losing to Dan Johnson by less than 200 votes in 2016. Belcher was first elected in 2008, replacing her husband on the ballot after he was killed in a car accident.
A retired teacher, Johnson said she wants to protect the public pension system from changes.
James Carmony said he voted for Johnson because he wanted to support Matt Bevin, the Republican governor.
"We put Matt Bevin in office for a reason, and I didn't want to send somebody that would just block him because they were from a different party," he said.