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Ohio’s 12th District Race Tightens in Final Stretch of Special Election

Republican Balderson is still favored, but Democrat O’Connor is closing the gap

Democrat Danny O’Connor is waging a surprisingly competitive race in Ohio’s ancestrally Republican 12th District. (Jonathan Quilter/The Columbus Dispatch via AP file photo)
Democrat Danny O’Connor is waging a surprisingly competitive race in Ohio’s ancestrally Republican 12th District. (Jonathan Quilter/The Columbus Dispatch via AP file photo)

The first week of August isn’t normally for politicking.

But all eyes are on the suburbs of Columbus, Ohio, for the next few days ahead of the last special election before the November midterms.

A young Democrat is outraising and outspending his Republican opponent, forcing GOP outside groups to spend for seat that would normally be easy for the party to hold. 

Sound familiar? 

This race for Ohio’s 12th District has followed the trajectory of other Trump-era special elections, with Democrat Danny O’Connor, the Franklin County recorder, steadily closing the gap with the Republican nominee, state Sen. Troy Balderson.

A Monmouth University poll released Wednesday showed O’Connor trailing Balderson 45 percent to 46 percent in a typical midterm model (with a margin of error of plus or minus 4.8 percentage points.) Monmouth surveyed 512 district voters by telephone from July 26-31. 

That’s a significant narrowing from last month when Balderson led 48 percent to 39 percent under the same model. O’Connor had a 1-point lead under what Monmouth calls its Democratic “surge” model meant to replicate special election turnout patterns seen since last year.

The Monmouth poll tracks with recent polls commissioned by O’Connor or Democratic groups that have showed Balderson ahead, but by a significantly narrower margin than he once was. 

Republicans are pulling out all the stops here. Outside groups such as the Congressional Leadership Fund have been propping up the GOP nominee, as it has in other recent special elections. And the district has seen a steady stream of national GOP surrogates, to be capped off this weekend with President Donald Trump.

After initially staying out of the race, Ohio Gov. John Kasich — who used to hold this seat — endorsed Balderson last week and cut an ad for the CLF backing him. 

Even if O’Connor comes up short Tuesday, Democrats are already celebrating that this is a margin-of-error race — a testament, they say, to the messaging and energy that they hope will prevail in other districts in November. 

ICYMI: Democratic Candidates Raise Millions in Second Quarter Fundraising

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A Republican seat

When former Rep. Pat Tiberi — a member of the Ways and Means Committee and leader of the Republican Main Street Caucus — announced last October that he would be giving up his 12th District seat to lead the Ohio Business Roundtable, it was chalked up to the frustration moderate Republicans were feeling in Washington.

Trump carried the seat in 2016 by 11 points — a narrower margin for him than the result in Pennsylvania’s 18th District, which Democrats flipped in a March special election. Republicans have since argued that the district had Democratic DNA and that their candidate was weak.

That’s harder to do here.

“Compared to Rick Saccone, he’s Abraham Lincoln,” one GOP operative following the race said of Balderson, contrasting him with the losing Republican nominee in Pennsylvania.

Tiberi had been an institution in Ohio’s 12th District (he won an eighth term by 37 points in 2016), and with Kasich holding the seat for 18 years before him, it’s known as pro-business Republican territory. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the race Tilts Republican

Even so, Democrats didn’t write off the seat when it first opened last fall, citing a need to get to 218 seats. Fast forward to mid-July, and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee got on the airwaves here to augment O’Connor’s focus on kitchen-table issues.

National Democrats have been hitting Balderson on health care and the GOP tax overhaul, trying to go after persuadable voters. They made a conscious decision to let O’Connor define himself first (and wait for the numbers to tighten) before making significant investments. 

CLF first began airing ads in early June, when it also announced its field program here. In such a Republican district, it went in early on trying to tie O’Connor to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.

O’Connor blunted some of those attacks by saying he wasn’t going to vote for her. But CLF resurfaced the hit last week after MSNBC’s Chris Matthews pressed O’Connor on whether he’d support Pelosi in a final vote if she was the Democrats’ choice for speaker. CLF released another Pelosi-themed ad on Thursday as part of its existing $2.6 million buy in the district. 

“I’d vote for whoever the Democratic Party puts forward,” O’Connor told Matthews. 

His campaign maintains that he never said he’d vote for Pelosi and that he doesn’t believe Pelosi would be the candidate Democrats put forward if they win the majority. 

Democratic enthusiasm 

O’Connor’s MSNBC interview aside — and Democrats question how serious a gaffe that was — party operatives have been encouraged by his ability to stay focused on economic issues and attract grass-roots enthusiasm. 

“One of the big things we’ve seen in this district is the tax bill has become more of an advantage for us than for them,” one Democratic strategist following the race said.

Republicans have hit O’Connor hard on the tax issue. One CLF ad from June features a mom talking about how much the tax overhaul is saving her family.

“I’m voting for Troy Balderson because I trust him to protect middle-class tax cuts,” she says in the spot, before adding that the “Pelosi-O’Connor tax hike is a burden we can’t afford.”

The DCCC has since run ads suggesting that Balderson’s support for the GOP tax law means he supports a “corporate tax giveaway” and is willing to cut Social Security or Medicare to pay for it. (Balderson told The Columbus Dispatch editorial board that he’s open to raising the eligibility age for both programs.) 

That forced Balderson to respond with his own ad Wednesday.

“I would never do anything to cut Social Security or Medicare,” he says, sitting at a kitchen table next to his mother. “My own mom and dad depend on both,” he adds, placing his hand over his mother’s.

That Democrats have been able to make a case against the tax bill even in an affluent and largely suburban district, the Democratic strategist said, is evidence Democrats should continue full-throttle with that message heading into November.

Besides the Pelosi and tax hike hit, Republicans have lobbed various attacks at O’Connor. An National Republican Congressional Committee ad from Tuesday, for example, features an elderly couple alleging that the Democrat supports regulations that would raise their energy costs.

O’Connor has been spending much more on television than Balderson, which concerns Republicans. But even if they’re underwhelmed with Balderson’s fundraising and work ethic, they’re not hitting the panic button, noting that no Democratic poll that’s been released has showed O’Connor leading in a head-to-head matchup. (Green Party nominee Joe Manchik is also on the ballot.)

“This is an August special election, so it’s not surprising it’s going to be a close one,” NRCC spokesman Chris Martin said Wednesday.

Given that The Columbus Dispatch singled out Balderson’s blanket support for Trump in its endorsement of O’Connor, the decision to dispatch the president to the district may seem odd.

But his visit, Republicans say, is meant to help excite base voters who may be tuned out to a midsummer political contest. 

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