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.

Nick Storm

Nick Storm is the Anchor and Managing Editor of Pure Politics available exclusively on Spectrum News. Pure Politics is the only nightly program dedicated to Kentucky politics. Nick covers all of the political heavyweights and his investigative work brings to light issues that might otherwise go unnoticed, like his coverage of the backlog of DNA rape kits waiting to be tested in Kentucky. Nick is also working on a feature length bio documentary Outlaw Poet: A documentary on Ron Whitehead. Pure Politics airs weeknight at 7 and 11:30 on Spectrum News. Follow Nick on Twitter @NStorm_Politics. Nick can be reached at 502-792-1107 or



  • Zee wrote on February 20, 2018 08:12 PM :

    Dan Johnson got the nomination to begin with not by winning a primary but by bringing in a group of people to a GOP meeting and getting the nomination – which have a healthy crowd but not exactly overwhelming numbers to where you could bring a group of friends that are registered Rs and get the nomination easily. This was because the voted upon nominee was voided by not having her paperwork in order, causing a special local GOP meeting to be held to replace the nominee. And but for straight ticket voting, he would not have defeated Belcher – 46% pulled the straight ticket button for the Republicans – and the race was 50-50 essentially, meaning nearly every person who actually looked at the ballot and saw the two names voted for Belcher in 2016. There is no way Johnson would have won had people who went in to vote actually looked at the ballot and saw he was their candidate.

    Belcher is a much better known quantity in Bullitt County than Rebecca Johnson – in a special election with low turnout she would obviously have the advantage since this was the only race on the ballot and people who voted would actually be focused on it. That, and fans of Bob’s Burgers TV show probably vote her as well.

  • Leo Haggerty wrote on February 21, 2018 06:55 AM :

    Nick, I think you are under stating the significance of Linda Belcher’s win. I don’t think the KYGOP should be in panic mode, but this race does indicate that the more extreme candidates that were elected in the Trump Wave of ‘16 are not safe. Most house districts lean Democratic because of the party’s statewide registration advantage. This race shows that “swing Democrats” have not abandoned the party.

    I do agree on the 89th. If Kelly Smith wins the folks in the McConnell Building should be afraid of a Blue Wave in 18.

  • AllPainNoGain wrote on February 21, 2018 07:29 AM :

    Nick, sure looks like another public relations piece written by Tres Watson. Thanks for always being a dependable voice for the propaganda the RPK wants to push out. Do you just edit their press releases these days and call that journalism?

  • Dee W. wrote on February 21, 2018 11:46 PM :

    AllPainNoGain – it was a factual analysis. There is nothing biased here at all. I realize that simply seeing actual facts and figures without false propaganda is a threat to the leftist narrative, but it doesn’t make it any less true – your insults and smears notwithstanding.

  • Ed Jessup wrote on March 01, 2018 09:14 PM :

    Good point Dee — I’m sure you’re making the same argument to Donald Trump, who seems to think all reporting of the Mueller investigation is “fake news”, even though the rats are fleeing the White House like roaches when the kitchen light goes on.

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