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Rating Change: Special Election in Ohio’s 12th Likely to Get Closer

Enthusiasm advantage could give Democrats a shot at Tiberi’s seat

Former Rep. Pat Tiberi’s resignation to lead the Ohio Business Roundtable opened up Ohio’s 12 District for the first time since 2000. (Bill Clark/Roll Call file photo)
Former Rep. Pat Tiberi’s resignation to lead the Ohio Business Roundtable opened up Ohio’s 12 District for the first time since 2000. (Bill Clark/Roll Call file photo)

In a time of political uncertainty, there appears to be one constant: Special elections in Republican districts and states are neither boring nor safe. Right now, there’s no reason to believe the race in Ohio’s 12th District will be any different.

GOP Rep. Pat Tiberi’s resignation to lead the Ohio Business Roundtable opens up the central Ohio seat for the first time since 2000, when Republican Rep. John R. Kasich left Congress to run for president. The district hasn’t elected a Democrat since the early 1980s, but the minority party has demonstrated an enthusiasm advantage over the last year that could boost an unlikely candidate once again.

By the numbers, the 12th doesn’t look like a great Democratic opportunity. President Donald Trump carried the district over Hillary Clinton 53 percent to 42 percent. In 2012, Mitt Romney took it 54 percent to 44 percent in the presidential race. The same year, Republican Josh Mandel carried the seat 51 percent to 44 percent in the Senate race, while losing statewide to Democratic incumbent Sherrod Brown.

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But the district includes a few Columbus suburbs, where Democrats could boost turnout. Democratic candidates ran at least 15 points ahead of 2016 presidential margins in special elections in less favorable districts last year, including Montana’s at-large district, Kansas’ 4th, and South Carolina’s 5th. And there is evidence that the March 13 special election in Pennsylvania’s 18th District (which Trump carried by nearly 20 points) is going to be competitive.

The timing of this Ohio election is a bit unusual. The primary will take place the same day (May 8) as the regular primary for the November election, which should boost turnout for the special election considering the competitive primaries for governor and U.S. Senate. The special general election will take place Aug. 7.

Given that the special election would elect a member of Congress who may only be needed for a lame-duck session, Democratic strategists could choose to sit out the August race and focus on the November race or other seats. But Republicans could also be too busy putting out fires in other districts across the country ahead of November to focus on Ohio’s 12th in August. A low turnout race toward the end of summer could benefit the energized party, which right now is the Democrats.

The filing deadline (Feb. 7) is still two weeks away and the Republican field is still taking shape. State Sen. Kevin Bacon, state Sen. Troy Balderson, and Delaware County prosecutor Carol O’Brien are running while Air Force veteran Tim Kane (who’s worked for the Hoover Institution) and Liberty Township Trustee Melanie Leneghan are potential candidates. And there’s still time for others to jump in. Democrats could benefit from a socially conservative GOP nominee, but it’s not clear any of the mentioned folks fit that mold.

On the Democratic side, former Franklin County Sheriff Zach Scott looks like the likely nominee after former state Rep. Jay Goyal declined to run. Franklin County Recorder Daniel O’Connor Jr. has been mentioned as a potential candidate, as well.

Based on the precedent of last year’s special elections and the potential for a Democratic surge in the Columbus suburbs, this race looks like it will eventually get competitive. And it could generate considerable national attention as reporters and the media look for clues about what will happen in November. We’re changing the Inside Elections rating from Solid Republican to Likely Republican.

Read more about the race and the candidates in Leah Askarinam’s piece in the Jan. 19 issue of Inside Elections.

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