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With Troy Balderson’s Official Win in Ohio, Debate About Trump Effect Returns

President credited with turning out his base, but troubling signs for GOP

President Donald Trump speaks at a rally for Ohio Republican Troy Balderson earlier this month. He plans to campaign in at least seven states in September — with more stops to come in October and November. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)
President Donald Trump speaks at a rally for Ohio Republican Troy Balderson earlier this month. He plans to campaign in at least seven states in September — with more stops to come in October and November. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

It took a couple of weeks, but Republican state Sen. Troy Balderson secured the win in a special election in Ohio. President Donald Trump, who stumped for Balderson in the special election in its final innings, got the save. But troubling signs for Republican candidates linger.

Balderson’s tough fight to win in Ohio’s 12 District, a longtime Republican stronghold, shows GOP candidates can withstand growing skepticism about the Trump presidency and policies such as the unpopular tax overhaul. But the close finish in a once safely red district also raises new questions about whether Trump has become “toxic,” in the words of one political strategist, to voters in midterm battlegrounds.

Political operatives and experts credited Trump for injecting himself into the race and likely driving up turnout among his conservative base in rural parts of the district. But they also say the race should never have been as close as it was during its final weeks, suggesting Republicans have work to do in competitive districts with the midterms just over two months away.

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“Special elections are called ‘special’ for a reason: Each one is different,” said Michael Steel, a GOP strategist who was a senior aide to former Speaker John A. Boehner. “But this victory is an important reminder that, despite the Democrats’ white-hot hatred of President Trump, the rules of political gravity still apply — and the president remains deeply popular among most Republican voters.”

David Brady, a Stanford University political science professor, described Balderson’s win as a “sigh of relief” for Trump and the party.

On one hand, Trump remains “strong in rural areas,” Brady said. But on the other, the 12th District race shows that is not the case in suburban areas — Balderson did worse than Trump’s 2016 performance in the Columbus suburbs.

That means “it is no guarantee they keep the House,” Brady said. “In fact, it suggests they might — might — have a chance to just barely hold on to the majority, but by two or three or four seats.” He added that Balderson’s win is a “good indicator” that Trump can increase conservative turnout.

To that end, Democratic strategist James Manley suggested the president’s ability to convince the conservative slice of the electorate that helped put him in office to head to the polls in November will be a big factor in determining which party controls the House and Senate come January.

“It’s becoming pretty clear that the only thing the president’s got going for him is to whip up the base,” Manley said.

Another Democratic strategist, who was granted anonymity to be candid, noted the president and Balderson overcame a “unique division in Ohio among Republicans,” saying two camps have emerged. One is loyal to Trump. The other is loytal to GOP Gov. John Kasich, who adheres to a more conventional Republican philosophy. (Both Trump and Kasich did endorse Balderson, though.)

“Every poll showed an enthusiasm gap that favored O’Connor,” said the Democratic strategist, who has been closely monitoring the race. “But one thing we all learned — or should have learned — from 2016 is not to put too much emphasis on polls.”

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The race tightened in a similar manner as others during the Trump era. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rated the contest Tilts Republican as voters cast their ballots on Aug. 7.

A Monmouth University poll released the week before the election showed Balderson narrowly leading O’Connor 46 percent to 45 percent under a standard midterm model, a significant change from just a month ago, when Balderson had a 9-point lead. An Emerson College survey released the day before the election showed it 47-46 percent for O’Connor.

Strategists on both sides of the aisle say the race never should have been so close and that it likely spells trouble for Republican candidates this fall. Trump, always eager to offer a counter-narrative, told rallygoers at a rally the Saturday before the election in suburban Columbus to expect a “red wave” in November even as political forecasters continue to predict Democrats are likely to gain seats in the House — and perhaps even capture control of the Senate.

“They’re talking about this ‘blue wave,’” Trump said. “I don’t think so.”

Watch: ‘North Dakota Nice’ Takes a Backseat in Senate Race

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