Thin Margin for Trump's Candidate in Ohio Spells Trouble for GOP

(Bloomberg) -- The wafer-thin lead held by President Donald Trump’s candidate in the special election for an Ohio House district is yet another signal of a political climate that has the Republican House majority at risk in November.

Republicans as well as Democrats saw warning signs in the outcome of the contest that had Republican Troy Balderson ahead of Democrat Danny O’Connor by just 1,754 votes -- a margin of less than 1 percent -- for the suburban Columbus seat that the GOP has dominated since 1982.

Still to be counted were several thousand provisional ballots, a process that will take at least 10 days. Balderson and Trump claimed victory, but O’Connor didn’t concede defeat. Whatever the final result, the two candidates will get a rematch to win a full term on Nov. 6 when the entire House and one-third of the Senate are on the general election ballot.

The narrow margin is ominous for the party on several levels. In a district that Trump won by 11 percentage points in 2016, O’Connor was able to close the gap on the strength of votes from the Columbus suburbs, where the electorate generally is wealthier and college educated. Those are the same voters that Democrats are targeting in districts across the country to flip Republican-held seats.

The results also highlight the growing partisan divide between urban and rural America in the age of Trump. O’Connor won Franklin County, a part of the Columbus metropolitan area, by 30 points. Balderson won Muskingum County, the rural part of the district, by 33 points. In a notable shift, Balderson won the affluent and traditionally Republican Delaware County by just 8 points -- after Trump won it by 17 points.

In addition, there are 68 Republican-held House districts that have voting patterns more favorable to Democrats than Ohio’s 12th district, including those of Virginia’s Barbara Comstock, Illinois’s Peter Roskam and California’s Dana Rohrabacher, according to a calculation by the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. Democrats need a net gain of 23 seats to take control of the House.

Under Performing

“This race should not have even been a contest,” Charlie Dent, a former GOP representative from Pennsylvania who retired in May, said on CNN. He called it a “significant under-performance” for his party that foreshadows a wipeout for many of his former colleagues in November. “If I’m a Republican in a swing or marginal district right now, I’m very concerned.”

The Ohio special election was the most watched contest of a day in which primaries for state and federal offices were held in Michigan, Kansas, Missouri and Washington.

Trump declared the Ohio race settled and took credit for Balderson’s victory via Twitter.

“As long as I campaign and/or support Senate and House candidates (within reason), they will win! I LOVE the people, & they certainly seem to like the job I’m doing,” Trump tweeted Wednesday. He again forecast “a giant Red Wave!” that will sweep more Republicans into office in November.

Trump is meeting tonight with supporters to promote a joint fundraising committee, Protect the House, that distributes money to GOP candidates.

Outside Spending

Republicans pulled out the stops to hang on to the Ohio seat, which was left open in January by the resignation of former Representative Pat Tiberi, who won the district by an average of 35 points in every election since it was redrawn after the 2010 census.

Trump campaigned for Balderson in the district on Saturday, and sent a tweet on Tuesday urging voters to turn out and disparaging O’Connor. Vice President Mike Pence visited the district to back Balderson, who also was supported by Ohio’s GOP governor, John Kasich, and the state’s Republican senator, Rob Portman.

Outside groups backing Balderson or opposing O’Connor had spent $5.2 million on the race, while those backing O’Connor or opposing Balderson spent $1 million.

The biggest outside spender was the Republican-aligned Congressional Leadership Fund, whose executive director Corry Bliss warned late Tuesday that "this remains a very tough political environment and moving forward, we cannot expect to win tough races when our candidate is being outraised. Any Republican running for Congress getting vastly outraised by an opponent needs to start raising more money."

Claiming victory, Balderson said he’s “very honored” to represent the 12th district, thanking his parents, campaign volunteers, and Trump. “America is on the right path,” he said. “Over the next three months, I’m going to do everything I can to keep America great again.”

O’Connor said in a statement that “we don’t know the results quite yet” but that “there’s a lot at stake this November” for the district.

Uncounted Ballots

The ballots still to be counted include 1,349 provisional ballots in Franklin County, the most populous in the district, according to the country elections board, and where O’Connor had his best showing. There are 2,000 provisional votes in other counties. They are cast by voters who move and don’t update their registration or don’t appear in poll books.

In Ohio, provisional ballots can’t be counted for 10 days to allow for voter eligibility to be verified. State law calls for an automatic recount if the margin is less than 0.5 percent of the total vote cast.

There are also 5,048 ballots that were sent out to voters who requested them that haven’t been returned. As long as a ballot is postmarked by Aug. 6 and received by the county elections board by Aug. 17, it can be counted.

Trump Factor

Although the Ohio district has long been a GOP stronghold, the Columbus suburbs have a significant concentration of white, college-educated, relatively high-income voters in the suburbs who have turned away from Trump.

“The chaos that seems to surround Donald Trump has unnerved a lot of people. So suburban women in particular here are the ones that are really turned off,” Kasich, a moderate Republican and Trump critic, said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week” program. “It’s really kind of shocking because this should be just a slam dunk and it’s not.”

Republican pollster Frank Luntz said on Twitter that “a 1-point victory in that district is nothing to commend. #OH12 The GOP have to do something really significant in September if they want to keep the House in November.”

Republicans in the Ohio contest -- much like in the Pennsylvania House special election in March -- largely abandoned their messaging touting the tax law in favor of TV ads highlighting critiques of illegal immigration and the “liberal resistance.” It’s a sign that they view their voters as more driven by cultural rather than fiscal issues.

Other Primaries

In the other contests on Tuesday, Democratic women enjoyed big victories in primaries on Tuesday, most notably in races to be the next governor of Michigan and Kansas.

In Michigan, the Democratic nomination for governor was won by Gretchen Whitmer, a former state legislator who was backed by Emily’s List, a group that supports Democratic women. She defeated Shri Thanedar, a wealthy entrepreneur, and Abdul El-Sayed, a progressive backed by Senator Bernie Sanders and Democratic congressional candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, who ousted a powerful incumbent in a June primary.

It was a proxy war between competing wings of the Democratic Party, both of which have scored victories in the 2018 primaries.

She’ll face Bill Schuette, the Republican attorney general of Michigan, in the fall election.

In Kansas, Democrat Laura Kelly, a state senator, defeated four men to win her party’s governor’s race. On the Republican side, the race was too close to call. Kris Kobach, a polarizing candidate who is backed by Trump, was locked in a tight race with incumbent Republican Governor Jeff Colyer for the nomination. With all precincts reporting, Kobach led by a mere 191 votes, out of more than 300,000 cast.

Missouri’s U.S. Senate race was officially set when Democratic incumbent Claire McCaskill and Republican state Attorney General Josh Hawley won their parties’ nominations, as expected. The state is central to the GOP’s quest to save -- or expand -- its 51-49 majority.

In Washington state, Democrat Maria Cantwell won renomination for a fourth term in the Senate; she’s the favorite against Republican Susan Hutchison.

In Michigan, Rashida Tlaib won the Democratic nomination for a deep-blue U.S. House district with no Republican challenger on the general election ballot, making her set to become the first Muslim woman elected to Congress.

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