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Wife of Kentucky lawmaker who killed himself amid sex scandal loses election bid

 / Updated  / Source: Associated Press

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SHEPHERDSVILLE, Ky. — The wife of a former Kentucky Republican lawmaker who killed himself last year after facing sexual assault allegations lost her attempt to fill the remainder of her husband's term in a special election that ended up being a referendum of sorts on the #MeToo movement.

Rebecca Johnson denied the allegations against Dan Johnson, claiming he was a victim of "an assault from the left." But the allegations were backed up by an on-the-record interview from the victim, plus pages of police documents that were published by the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting after months of reporting.

Voters on Tuesday in this rural Kentucky House district just south of Louisville voted overwhelmingly to replace Johnson with Linda Belcher, a retired teacher and former Democratic state lawmaker who lost to Dan Johnson by less than 200 votes in 2016.

Carol Schneider, 65, called Rebecca Johnson "a die hard, stand by your man kind of woman." But she voted for Belcher, she said, because Johnson was "hanging on to a bunch of lies and now that he's dead he's like this martyr."

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James Carmony, 47, said he wasn't sure he believed the sexual assault allegations and said he ultimately voted for Johnson because she is a Republican and he believed she would support the state's GOP governor. "A lot of things like that come out, sometimes they are true and sometimes they are not," Carmony.

Tuesday's election was also one of the first signs in 2018 that Democrats have momentum heading into the pivotal midterm elections two years into Donald Trump's presidency.

The Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee said it's at least the 37th contested seat Democrats have taken from Republicans since Trump was inaugurated. And it may have come in the reddest district to date. Trump won Kentucky's 49th House district in 2016 with more than 72 percent of the vote. On Tuesday, the Democratic candidate won with more than 68 percent of the vote.

Image: Rebecca Johnson, wife of Kentucky State Rep. Dan Johnson.
Rebecca Johnson, wife of Kentucky State Rep. Dan Johnson.TODAY

"The results here show that if we can win in this district, we can win anywhere," said Ben Self, chairman of the Kentucky Democratic Party. "I think this shows the entire House, the Kentucky House, is in play."

Republicans scoffed at that notion, with state GOP spokesman Tres Watson pointing to low turnout and the circumstances of Johnson's suicide "clouding the outcome."

Despite the lopsided results, Johnson refused to concede, citing "widespread voter fraud."

"I've heard from and about people all day long saying they went to vote for me at the correct polling place and were refused the opportunity to vote," Johnson said in a news release. "It's like we're in a Third World country."

Earlier in the day, county election officials discovered residents in a particular subdivision were incorrectly listed as not living in the district. Bullitt County Clerk Kevin Mooney said the problem was fixed and poll workers were instructed to send affected voters to another precinct. Mooney said if all of the affected voters had voted for Johnson, it would not have changed the outcome.

At her campaign headquarters in downtown Shepherdsville, Belcher said she won the election "fair and square." It is the third time voters have elected Belcher, who was first elected in 2008 when she replaced her husband on the ballot after he was killed in a car wreck.

Belcher said it was "hard to say" if sexual assault allegations against Dan Johnson and his death played a part in the election, adding: "I have tried to stay very positive and away from that whole situation."

Belcher told a reporter Bullitt County "has spoken what it wants."

"It wants honesty and integrity and a very visible person as their state representative," she said.

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