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Democrat trounces Republican in Kentucky state race where Trump won with 72% of vote

Chris Baynes
Democratic candidate Linda Belcher thanks supporters following her victory in the special election to fill the vacant seat for the Kentucky House of Representatives 49th District: AP

The Democrats have emphatically won a state House seat in a Kentucky district where Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton by 49 points in 2016.

Linda Belcher’s victory in Bullitt County, where she polled more than two-thirds of the vote, is thought to be the Democrats’ 37th gain since the presidential election and is the latest sign of the party’s momentum ahead of pivotal midterms later this year.

She defeated the widow of a former Kentucky Republican lawmaker who killed himself last year after facing child sexual assault allegations.

Rebecca Johnson had denied the accusations against husband Dan Johnson, claiming he was a victim of “an assault from the left.” However, they were backed up by an on-the-record interview from the victim, plus pages of police documents that were published by the Kentucky Centre for Investigative Reporting.

Voters in the rural district just south of Louisville voted overwhelmingly to replace Mr Johnson with Ms Belcher, a retired teacher and former Democratic state politician who had lost the seat by fewer than 200 votes in 2016.

Ms Belcher won 68 per cent of Tuesday’s vote, with Republican candidate Ms Johnson polling 32 per cent.

The result will boost confidence among Democrats ahead of crucial midterm elections two years into Mr Trump’s presidency.

The Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee said Bullitt County was at least the 37th contested seat the party had taken from Republicans since Mr Trump’s inauguration.

It may also be the strongest pocket of Trump support where the Democrats have triumphed since he took power.

The Republican billionaire won Kentucky’s 49th House district in 2016 with more than 72 per cent of the vote, compared to defeated Democratic candidate Ms Clinton’s 23 per cent share.

The election was held following the suspected suicide of Dan Johnson, who was alleged to have sexually assaulted a teenage girl (AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley, File)

“Congratulations to Representative-elect Linda Belcher on her victory in today’s special election, which flipped yet another Republican-held seat from red to blue in a district that Trump won easily in 2016,” said Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez.

Ben Self, chairman of the Kentucky Democratic Party, said: “The results here show that if we can win in this district, we can win anywhere.

“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 Mr Johnson’s suicide “clouding the outcome.”

Ms 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,” she said. “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 subsequently fixed and poll workers were instructed to send affected voters to another precinct.

He said even if everyone affected had voted Republican and their votes were all lost, it still would not have changed the outcome.

At her campaign headquarters in downtown Shepherdsville, Ms Belcher said she won the election “fair and square.”

It is the third time voters have elected the Democrat. She was first elected in 2008 when she replaced her husband on the ballot after he was killed in a car crash.

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