Last night, it was Ohio’s turn to wow the nation with a special election. This time, State Senator Troy Balderson (R) is clinging to a very narrow lead over Franklin County Recorder Danny O’Connor (D) in the 12th Congressional District (OH-12), which spans from the Columbus suburbs to rural territory to the north and east. With the margin so excruciatingly close, the fact that another previously safe Republican-held seat became a hotly contested battleground suggests that Republicans are still playing defense, and still in jeopardy of losing the House in November.
The lay of the land in OH-12
On January 15, Rep. Pat Tiberi (R-Ohio) resigned from office to take a new position at the Ohio Business Roundtable. When Tiberi originally announced his departure in October 2017, not much thought was given to the special election to replace him. After all, most of the district hasn’t been represented by a Democrat since at least 1983, and Delaware County (one of the more populous parts of OH-12) has consistently voted for Republican presidential candidates since 1916.
But when Rep. Conor Lamb (D-Pennsylvania) won his special election and flipped a Pittsburgh area seat that had been considered a Republican stronghold, Ohio Democrats began to voice more confidence about flipping OH-12. Though the region is generally more ancestrally Republican than Western Pennsylvania, President Donald Trump only carried the district by 11%, as opposed to his nearly 20% victory in Pennsylvania’s old 18th Congressional District where Lamb prevailed in March.
Who are these people, and how did this photo finish happen?
Just like Conor Lamb, Danny O’Connor tended to steer clear of the debate over progressive values and governing vision that’s rocked Democrats across the nation… Except to pile onto the growing call for House Democrats to ditch Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) as their leader. And just like Lamb and several other Democrats running in special elections for Congress, O’Connor raked in the campaign cash and generated enthusiasm over another young, fresh face scoring another remarkable victory for Democrats in a place once thought to be “hostile territory”.
Meanwhile, Troy Balderson already began to get blowback from his fellow Republicans for seemingly fumbling what should have been an easy win. Though he managed to earn the support of Donald Trump and prominent Never-Trumper Governor John Kasich (R, who held this very seat before Tiberi), he had to spend the final days of the campaign dodging allegations from Kasich that Trump jeopardized Republicans’ chance at keeping his district. Though he beat a primary opponent who had earned the endorsement of Freedom Caucus stalwart Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), Balderson also spent the final days of the campaign literally dodging questions of whether he’d support Jordan for Speaker amidst allegations from Ohio State University student wrestlers that the then assistant coach was complicit in protecting the team doctor who sexually abused them. And even though Balderson ran in a district that includes Franklin and Delaware Counties, he explicitly ran against his potential Columbus area constituents when he stated, “We don’t want someone from Franklin County representing us.”
Troy Balderson opted for a Donald Trump style “culture war” message in hopes of galvanizing Trump’s “economically anxious” base behind him, while Danny O’Connor opted for a campaign that straddled the fence between exciting the progressive base itching to fight Trump all the way and appealing to the kind of swing voters who may not be feeling the “political revolution”. Balderson’s warm embrace of Trump (and Trumpism) probably helped him run up the score in the rural counties, and that looks to be barely enough to override his rather dramatic underperformance in the northern Columbus suburbs where Democratic victories are normally few and far between.
So Republicans may hang on to win OH-12. What does that mean for us here in Nevada?
Though last night’s OH-12 result was very close, this isn’t usually what happens in this district. Again, it has a long, extensive history as “rock-ribbed Republican territory”. Democrats typically come nowhere close to winning here. And yet, that’s exactly what happened here last night.
Thus far, Danny O’Connor has improved upon Hillary Clinton’s 2016 performance by about 10%. (There are still provisional ballots left to count, and an automatic recount will be triggered if the semi-final margin is within 0.5%.) If we extrapolate this overperformance to the rest of the country, that gives Democrats a double-digit national lead (as a few recent polls have shown), making them heavy favorites to flip control of the House and at least have a decent chance of flipping the Senate as well.
Of course, this 10% Democratic shift just seen in OH-12 probably won’t be uniform. It’s been larger in some districts with special elections, and smaller in others. Also keep in mind that both Nevada overall, and Nevada’s 3rd (NV-03) and 4th (NV-04) Congressional Districts are not Republican-heavy like OH-12. There’s no way U.S. Senator Dean Heller (R), Danny Tarkanian (R), or Former Rep. Cresent Hardy (R-Bunkerville) can realistically look at the Ohio result and feel good about it.
But hey, don’t take my word for it: Take the baseless new attack ad on Rep. Jacky Rosen (D-Henderson), or perhaps Tarkanian’s latest quixotic attempt to obscure his cringeworthy business record, or possibly Hardy’s half-hearted attempt to have it both ways on supporting Trump. These aren’t exactly hallmarks of Republicans feeling confident of a “red wave” washing over the country. If anything, this latest special election points to a “blue wave” rapidly approaching our shore.
Cover photo provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, placed in the public domain, and made available by Wikimedia.