Analysis: Why the 49th Dist. House special election is not a bellwether

02/20/2018 03:28 PM

As voters in the 49th Dist. special election in Bullitt County make their way to the polls on Tuesday, many will look at the outcome as a sign of things to come in Kentucky politics, but the race likely will not be a sign of a Democratic resurgence — even if Linda Belcher wins back the seat.

Belcher, a former educator who held the seat prior to being defeated in 2016, faces Republican candidate Rebecca Johnson, the widow of former Rep. Dan Johnson, who took his own life in December after allegations surfaced that he molested a then 17 year old in 2013.

Republicans lost three of four special elections in 2016, and then went on to decimate Democrats in 2016

Democrats went from a narrow 53-seat majority to a 36-seat minority in November of 2016 as Republicans grew a supermajority in the Kentucky House of Representatives. However, before the staggering success Republicans lost three of four seats in special elections that year. Republicans came back in the fall and took back all of the seats they missed in the special election in November.

Special elections are short-run races that are all about turnout, and rarely have anything to do with ideas or policy, like general elections. Messaging in special elections focuses primarily on convincing undecideds to support a candidate and to get base supporters to the polls on Election Day.

Where’s the base?

The 49th District is not solidly Democratic or Republican in make up, it’s a pretty even split with 1,031 more registered Democrats than Republicans.

In 2016, former Rep. Dan Johnson, R-Mt. Washington, defeated Rep. Belcher, but just by 156 votes. Before that the seat has swapped hands. Belcher won the seat back from Rep. Mike Nemes in 2014 after the seat had been redistricted in 2012 by Democrats who then controlled the House, most of the voters in the district are working class.

Even though Johnson was carried over the election hurdle by the Trump wave in 2016, he underperformed Trump by 22 percent in 2016, according to voter data.

Give me a reason to turnout

There’s also the elephant in the room to consider in this election, which is Johnson’s suicide, previous racially charged remarks and allegations of molestation.

In the 49th District special election, Johnson has dug in on her husband’s reputation and focused on the media and pointed blame for her husband’s death — but she’s never focused on Belcher’s record in the legislature or other attributes. Meanwhile, Belcher has focused her messaging around her attributes in office, and her time as a teacher as well as protecting teacher’s pensions.

A potential bellwether could exist, but not in Bullitt County

The 49th District race should be a toss up, maybe even advantage Democrats in this special election. But in the 89th House District , where another special election will take place on Tuesday, Feb. 27 there could be major problems mounting in 2018 if Republicans lose.

Republicans hold a two-to-one voter registration advantage in the district which includes all of Jackson, part of Laurel, and part of Madison County. If Democrats win that seat, there are problems for the GOP in Kentucky.


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