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Parsing Ohio’s 12th: Neither Party Should Rush to Conclusions Just Yet

A lot more can still happen three months out from November

If Republican Troy Balderson holds on in Ohio’s 12th District, it would look more like a sequel to the special election in Pennsylvania’s 18th District, perhaps with a happier ending but hardly the stuff of a “red wave,” Winston writes. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)
If Republican Troy Balderson holds on in Ohio’s 12th District, it would look more like a sequel to the special election in Pennsylvania’s 18th District, perhaps with a happier ending but hardly the stuff of a “red wave,” Winston writes. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

In 1982, as a young opposition researcher at the National Republican Congressional Committee, one of “my candidates” was an equally young John Kasich running in Ohio’s 12th District.

He was the only GOP challenger to win in that first off-year election of the Reagan presidency, and Republicans have held the seat ever since. With my background in the district, I had more than a passing interest in the outcome of Tuesday’s special election there.

Given the district’s electoral history, it’s hard to understand the dynamics behind the razor-thin margin between Republican Troy Balderson and Democrat Danny O’Connor. Apparently, the political media is in the same boat.

Here’s a sampling of Wednesday morning headlines.

Fox News: “Dems fall short in string of tight contests, raising doubts about ‘blue wave’ predictions.”

CNN: “Republicans should panic about the House and other takeaways from Tuesday’s elections”

Washington Post: “Even if they don’t win it, Ohio special election shows Democrats remain on the march.” “Ohio Barnburner: It Looks like the GOP Gave Democrats a Black Eye in the Buckeye State.”

So, what’s a voter supposed to think of this outcome? On the one hand, Republicans are right. A win is a win, and if the margin holds after counting the outstanding provisional and absentee ballots, the GOP can chalk up another special election in the win column.

But don’t break out the champagne just yet because Democrats are also right. Even if Republicans hold on to their slim margin as the remaining votes are counted, this is certainly not a great win in a district President Donald Trump carried by 11 points. It looks more like a sequel to the March contest in Pennsylvania’s 18th District, perhaps with a happier ending but hardly the stuff of a “red wave.”

Turnout is key in most special elections, and conventional wisdom would dictate that a race held in the dog days of summer, with some folks still on vacation and others getting ready for school to open, would generate an expected low turnout. Not this time.

As of Thursday afternoon, prior to absentee and provisional ballots being counted, 203,109 Ohioans came out for an election that, in less divisive times, would have garnered little attention outside Columbus. This was, in fact, a remarkable turnout.

For comparison, in the 2014 midterm general election, 221,081 voters headed to the polls in Ohio’s 12th District, a difference of only about 20,000 from this year. Longtime Republican Rep. Pat Tiberi drew 68 percent of the vote that year, winning by nearly 90,000 votes. 

Watch: Takeaways From the Last Special Election Before November

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Just the facts

Balderson now holds a precarious 1,564-vote lead with more than 8,000 absentee and provisional ballots yet to be counted. The question Republicans are asking today is why. Without exit polls or research, it’s difficult to know the answer but the turnout gives us some clues.

We know that Franklin and Delaware counties in the Columbus suburbs, which make up 64 percent of the vote, had slightly higher turnouts than the 2014 midterms, which is surprising in a special election. Franklin was 1.4 percent higher; Delaware was up 0.3 percent.

We also know that in the remaining five counties, turnout was roughly 21 percent lower than 2014, which for a special election would normally still be considered a good turnout.

And we know that Balderson underperformed Tiberi in Franklin and Delaware counties by almost 24 percent. In the more rural areas, he only underperformed by 7 percent.

On the other hand, O’Connor increased his party’s vote total by 38,848, a 63.3 percent increase, most of which came from Franklin and Delaware counties. This boosted the Democratic share of the vote from 28 percent in 2014 to 49 percent Tuesday. 

No one would have expected Balderson, as a nonincumbent, to hit the popular Tiberi’s levels, but a drop-off of almost 50,000 votes with a turnout decrease of about 20,000 voters is worrying.

What happened

It leaves us with some tough questions. Who voted? Did more Democrats or new “resistance” voters turn out or did fewer Republicans go to the polls? Did moderates or independents, who in previous elections had leaned toward the GOP, simply decide to back a centrist Democrat this time, or were people sending the GOP and/or Trump a message?

The Ohio result coupled with Republicans’ earlier losses in Virginia, New Jersey and Pennsylvania and close calls in Georgia and Arizona certainly raise a number of strategic questions for GOP candidates and their campaigns. Is it time to rethink the efficacy of negative, anti-Nancy Pelosi/Democrat messaging, which has been the hallmark of most of these campaigns?

Would less focus on Pelosi and more focus on an extraordinary economy that is creating record numbers of jobs and a new optimism about the country’s future be a better approach? Would it make more sense to talk up the positive aspects of tax cuts and growth that will help families living paycheck to paycheck get ahead?

No one discounts the importance of the base to the success of either party, but if Republicans aren’t winning special elections in Republican districts, or winning them with lower numbers than they should, maybe it’s time to rethink the way we reach independents, with a message that resonates with their concerns.

Independents are likely to sway most close elections this fall. Hot language and tough ads do energize the base, but if past voting behavior is any indication, one thing Republicans can count on is that the base is not large enough to build a majority coalition. When wave elections have occurred, it is because independents break decisively one way. What GOP leaders and candidates need to consider is whether their strategy and messaging are turning off independent voters as they energize the base.

It’s a delicate balance but one necessary to create a winning coalition. Election Day is less than 90 days away, but there is plenty of time to rethink strategy and tactics and make adjustments in messaging and focus.

A forgotten story

Many in the political media spent most of Tuesday night predicting the demise of Republicans this fall based on the Ohio outcome. Because of their unique nature, special elections may or may not be predictive — but the generic ballot usually is.

The latest RealClearPolitics average gives Democrats a generic ballot advantage of 5 points, continuing what has been a yearlong downward trend. And the most recent polls cited on RCP offer even better news for Republicans:

So, despite problems we’ve seen in the recent special elections for Republicans, we’ve also seen a trend line in the generic ballot that ought to concern Democrats and the media still counting on the often-predicted blue wave.

Tuesday’s elections saw Republicans underperform in Ohio but also choose some very attractive and electable candidates in primaries around the country. And the celebrated Bernie Sanders/Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez socialist crusade floundered as Democratic voters rejected their candidates across the board.

The Ohio special election delivered some sobering and encouraging takeaways for both Republicans and Democrats. But maybe it’s more important to remember that three months can be a lifetime in politics.

David Winston is the president of The Winston Group and a longtime adviser to congressional Republicans. He previously served as the director of planning for Speaker Newt Gingrich. He advises Fortune 100 companies, foundations, and nonprofit organizations on strategic planning and public policy issues, and is an election analyst for CBS News.Correction 12:29 p.m. | An earlier version of this column misstated the distinction of John Kasich’s election to Congress in 1982. He was the only Republican challenger to win that year and not the only nonincumbent GOP candidate. 

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