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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

OH-12 Special Election Results Should Encourage Democrats

Democrat Danny O’Connor trails by less than 1 percent in the vote count for the special election in OH-12. As Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns explain in “Republican Holds Slim Lead in Ohio Special Election for House Seat” at The New York Times,

Republicans spent millions of dollars on scorching television ads, pried a reluctant endorsement from Ohio’s moderate governor, used the Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi as a foil and enlisted President Trump in a last-minute turnaround effort in a special election for Congress in Ohio.

And after all that, in a conservative-leaning district outside Columbus, the Republican candidate clung to the narrowest of leads on Tuesday night…The district that Mr. Balderson may have barely won voted for Mr. Trump by 11 points less than two years ago, and routinely elected Republicans to Congress by landslide margins before that…Even as Mr. O’Connor appeared to fall short, however, he significantly improved upon Hillary Clinton’s performance in the district’s suburban precincts, and he overwhelmed Mr. Balderson in the sort of high-income enclaves Republicans must perform better in to hold their 23-seat majority in the House.

The Republican, Troy Balderson, a state senator who ran a plodding campaign, led his Democratic challenger, Danny O’Connor, by less than 1 percentage point with all precincts reporting. But an unknown number of provisional ballots are yet to be counted, and Ohio law provides for an automatic recount if the two candidates are ultimately separated by less than half a percentage point.

National Republicans declared victory before midnight, but it could be days or weeks before there is a conclusive result in the race. And regardless of the outcome, Mr. Balderson and Mr. O’Connor will face each other again in three months, in the regularly scheduled November election.

O’Connor has not conceded as of this writing, and Republicans are still nervous about the final tally, as well as the November rematch.

In his slate.com post, “The Results in Ohio Bode Poorly for Republicans, Regardless of Who Wins, Josh Vorhees notes:

As for its bearing on the midterms, though, this race has already told us pretty much everything it can. Donald Trump won the district by 11 points two years ago, and Democrats haven’t represented it in Congress in three-plus decades. That the contest turned out to be as close as it did is shocking, regardless of who wins—or it would have been shocking, anyway, if it weren’t for the surprises of the previous 10 federal elections since Trump took office. Democrats have performed better, often way better, than the makeup of their respective electorates would predict. That was true in Pennsylvania, where Conor Lamb beat the partisan lean of his district (as measured by FiveThirtyEight) by 22 points to win his congressional race by a few tenths of a point. It was true in South Carolina, where Archie Parnell beat the lean by 16 points, to come up only 3 points short. And it’s true in Ohio, where O’Connor is on pace to beat expectations by about 13 points.

If Balderson can hold on, Republicans will avoid a national embarrassment like the one they suffered in Alabama this past December and in western Pennsylvania this spring. But even then, Balderson’s razor-thin margin of victory would be more worrisome for the GOP than his win would be reassuring. Republicans pulled out all the stops in this one. National GOP groups spent millions in the race, Donald Trump held one of his MAGA rallies in the district over the weekend, and Ohio Gov. John Kasich—one of the few #NeverTrump Republicans still in office, and someone who held this seat for nearly two decades—supported Balderson.

That kind of GOP unity is hardly guaranteed in the fall, and Republicans won’t have the luxury of devoting so much time and money to each battleground district between now and November. The GOP currently holds roughly 60 congressional districts that are lessRepublican than this one, according to the Cook Political Report’s partisan index. Democrats, then, could lose half of those districts this fall and still win the 23 seats they need to retake the House next year.

“I think Republicans are running out of excuses for why these seats are more competitive than they have been in the past,” said Nathan Gonzales, who handicaps elections at Inside Politics. “The common thread here is Donald Trump is energizing Democrats,” quoted in Michael Scherer’s Washington Post report on the vote count. Also, “This district should have been a slam dunk for the GOP,” said Rep. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.), the leader of the Democratic midterm effort in the House, in a statement. “The fact that we are still counting ballots is an ominous sign for their prospects in November.”

“Since O’Connor outraised Balderson on the strength of small donations, the national party swooped in to make up the difference,” notes Daniel Marans at HuffPo. “GOP groups outspent their Democratic counterparts in the race by a ratio of nearly 5 to 1.”

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