Democrats See a Surprise Opening in an Ohio House Race

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- An oft-used, if hackneyed, axiom is: Close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades. Applied to politics, it means that if you lose a special election, don't try again in the general.

Danny O'Connor says he's going to defy that conventional wisdom. Last month, the 32 year-old Democrat barely lost a come-from-behind race, by 1,700 votes, in a special election for a solidly Republican House seat in central Ohio. The race to serve out the term of Republican Pat Tiberi until the November elections was supposed to be the best and only shot for O'Connor and his party to pull off a huge upset.

Yet the November contest is one of the more competitive in the midterms because a couple extraneous factors may help O'Connor defeat the Republican who won the race to temporarily replace Tiberi.

First, after his Aug. 7 defeat, O'Connor didn't concede the race for weeks as he waited for straggling returns to come in. Wiser veterans cautioned this was a mistake because he would blow any slim shot he might have in the November election.

But, reflecting today's poisonous and polarized politics, money started pouring into his campaign from Democrats convinced the election had been stolen. (It wasn't.) By the end of August, the Republican incumbent Troy Balderson had $93,000 cash on hand; O'Connor had more than $1 million.

A lack of money is often the biggest reason that candidates who lost special elections don't try again in the general; they usually can't raise enough, especially when running against an incumbent. By ignoring that precedent, O'Connor is an exception.

There have been seven special House elections in this cycle. In three, the losing candidate isn't on a November ballot, in three others, they are given little chance.

Although the Ohio seat is still rated "lean Republican" by the Cook Political report, O'Connor, in an interview, says he believes the momentum is with him. As this is Ohio State Buckeye territory, he uses a football metaphor: "We were down 21-to-6 and scored two touchdowns; we've got the ball in the second half."

There are factors besides money that make an O'Connor win a possibility in the relatively affluent, well-educated 12th district, which includes parts of Columbus and stretches north to the traditionally Republican suburbs and exurbs.

The area has many college students, including some from Ohio State and from smaller schools like Denison and Ohio Wesleyan. In one Columbus precinct that includes a large population of people affiliated with Ohio State, O'Connor won 45-to-4 in August, when the students were away; Hillary Clinton won the precinct 523-to-218 in 2016.

An aide on the O'Connor campaign spends most of her time getting students to register before the Oct. 9 deadline. Because President Donald Trump is enormously unpopular on college campuses, students could make a difference if they turn out.

Another advantage will be Sherrod Brown, the state's popular Democratic senator who is running for re-election. "This time, I get to run with the best senator in the country," says O'Connor. Brown is from Mansfield, which is in the congressional district where O'Connor is running.

O'Connor, like other Democrats, is seizing on a comment this week by Trump's economic adviser Larry Kudlow, who said there could be cutbacks to Social Security and Medicare next year to pay for the administration's tax cuts. A government shutdown this fall, led by right-wing Ohio Congressman Jim Jordan, would be another gift, though that seems less likely now.

The district, which Trump carried by 11 points and was once represented in the U.S. House by the state's most powerful Republican, Governor John Kasich, wasn't even among the Democrats' top 70 targets until Tiberi, decided to leave to lead a state business association. A switch of allegiances between August and November would be a political bombshell.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He was the executive editor of Bloomberg News, before which he was a reporter, bureau chief and executive Washington editor at the Wall Street Journal.

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