Special House Election in Ohio Poses Latest Test of ‘Blue Wave’

(Bloomberg) -- An August special election for a U.S. House seat in the suburbs of Columbus, Ohio, is pitting the intensity of Democratic resistance to President Donald Trump against a Republican advantage in a district the party has held for three dozen years.

In the weeks before the Aug. 7 vote, Republicans are highlighting immigration and culture wars as Democrats focus on taxes and fortifying Social Security and Medicare.

Democratic candidate Danny O’Connor is 31 and relatively new to politics. He’s trying to navigate the region’s conservative tilt by vowing to oppose keeping House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi in the party’s top spot. He emphasizes economic issues over cultural ones that would likely benefit the GOP in a district Trump carried by 9 points in 2016.

It’s a playbook that Democrat Conor Lamb used to narrowly win a Republican-leaning district in western Pennsylvania in March. Whether O’Connor can replicate that in Ohio against 56-year-old Republican State Senator Troy Balderson is the latest test of a possible “blue wave” ahead of the Nov. 6 midterm elections, when Democrats hope to claim the House.

Rated ‘Toss-Up’

Ohio’s 12th House district votes 7 percentage points more Republican than the country as a whole, and has the highest proportion of college graduates in the state, according to the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, which labels the race a “toss-up.”

In the last eight House special elections, Democrats have outperformed those districts’ partisan lean by an average of 8 points, according to Cook’s House editor David Wasserman. That makes for a potentially tight race in the Ohio seat, where Republican Pat Tiberi resigned in January.

“With three weeks to go, either has a good chance of winning,” Wasserman wrote on July 18. “Both parties believe Balderson holds a mid-single-digit lead in the mid-40s.” However, he added, “Democrats’ superior intensity, particularly in a mid-summer race that hasn’t gotten much national attention, could easily erase that gap.”

Build That Wall

Balderson, a state legislator since 2009, is campaigning on building a Trump’s U.S.-Mexico border wall to stop illegal immigration, protecting gun-owners’ rights, and supporting the president. A recent ad also paints a softer image by casting him as a problem-solver who has worked with John Kasich, the state’s popular and comparably moderate Republican governor who’s often clashed with the president. Kasich used to represent the district, although under different boundaries.

Trump weighed in on Balderson’s behalf on Sunday in a Twitter message, saying the candidate has his “Full & Total Endorsement!”

The “priorities” page on O’Connor’s campaign website makes no mention of immigration, crime or gun rights -- and instead calls for expanding access to health care, protecting Social Security and Medicare, and finding “common ground” in Washington.

Two new TV ads broadcast last week highlight the issues that dominate the campaign’s closing arguments, with Republicans focusing on immigration and crime and Democrats emphasizing tax policy and the retirement safety net.

‘Factually Challenged’

A spot by the Republican super-PAC Congressional Leadership Fund used ominous footage of riots as it connected O’Connor to the “liberal resistance,” crime and “open borders” and linked him to California’s Pelosi, who’s deeply unpopular in conservative areas.

The Columbus Dispatch newspaper called the ad “factually challenged,” debunking its insinuations that O’Connor -- who won his first public office as a county recorder in 2016 -- is connected to Pelosi or the left-wing push to “abolish ICE,” the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.

“No, he does not support abolishing ICE and has said as much multiple times,” O’Connor campaign manager Annie Ellison said in an email, describing the commercial as part of “a steady diet of name-calling and nasty ads, and voters are sick of it.”

Meanwhile, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee ran an ad slamming the 2017 Republican tax cut law as a deficit-booster that “could mean cuts to Medicare and Social Security.” The ad notes that Balderson has expressed openness to raising the eligibility age for those programs. The DCCC is overseen by Pelosi.

Asked to respond, Balderson senior strategist Brad Shattuck didn’t address the allegation but said O’Connor is “relying on Nancy Pelosi’s money to try to win this election. If Danny O’Connor is serious about his calls for new leadership, shouldn’t he disavow this ad that’s funded by Nancy Pelosi and her liberal allies?”

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