Tuesday night, President Trump tweeted excitedly that his mere willingness to show up and campaign in Ohio’s 12th District is the reason Republican Troy Balderson may well prevail — very, very narrowly — in Tuesday’s special election. Trump appears to have looked at last night’s results and concluded he is giving his party a big lift.
It’s safe to say that few if any serious or experienced Republican strategists or operatives are taking this lesson from what happened. Indeed, a number of them suggested that, if anything, last night’s results should be very worrying indeed when it comes to the GOP’s prospects of keeping the House.
Balderson currently leads over Democrat Danny O’Connor by less than 1 percentage point, with thousands of provisional ballots still remaining to be counted. Even if Balderson wins, which appears likely, the big story of the night is that the race was a virtual tie in a district that Trump carried by 11 points, meaning last night’s results confirm that the national political environment’s swing toward Democrats remains very much in force.
How big a swing are we seeing? The team at FiveThirtyEight calculates that when you include last night’s results, all of this cycle’s House and Senate special elections have produced an average 16-point swing in the Democrats’ direction.
What’s more, because this race was almost dead even, it provides a good jumping-off point to describe how broad the map is for Democrats, by looking at all of the districts that are less friendly to Republicans than this one is. Last night probably means that Democrats have a decent shot at winning in many of them.
Here’s one way to look at this. The Cook Political Report measures the partisan lean of a congressional district with a metric called the “Partisan Voting Index,” which is the average of how a district voted in the past two presidential elections, relative to the nation as a whole. If a district has a PVI of D+2, that means in 2012 and 2016 it voted an average of 2 points more Democratic than the whole country did.
Cook rates 60 GOP-held House seats as being seriously in play, meaning that they are either in the Lean Republican (26), Toss Up (24), Lean Democratic (7) or Likely Democratic (3) categories. If you compare all those 60 seats to Ohio’s 12th District, here’s what you end up with:
- Ohio’s 12th district has a PVI of R+7. By my count, a total of around 47 of these GOP-held seats have a PVI that is less Republican leaning than Ohio’s 12th district is.
- Meanwhile, Ohio’s 12th district voted for Trump by 11 points. By my count, a total of around 42 of these GOP-held seats voted for Trump by less than that amount (or voted for Hillary Clinton).
The lean or the Trump vote share in any given district isn’t necessarily predictive of the outcome, because that particular district might be safer for Republicans due to a popular incumbent, or more at risk because it’s an open seat. Still, this provides a very rough estimate of just how broad the House map appears, in the wake of last night’s results.
Another way to think about this is that Democrats can flip the 23 seats they need to win the House by winning only in districts that are more politically hospitable to them than Ohio’s 12 District is — where, again, Democrats eked out a virtual tie.
“Democrats don’t need to win this Republican a district in order to get to the majority,” Nathan Gonzales, editor of Inside Elections, told me. “Democrats can lose OH-12 and still win.”
As noted above, there are around 42 districts that Trump won more narrowly than Ohio’s 12th District. Obviously, Democrats will only win some of those (whether those alone will get Democrats to the majority remains to be seen). But the map is also broad for them in another way.
“There are also districts that Trump won handily where Democrats have a strong candidate that could win,” Gonzales said. He cited Paul Davis in Kansas’ 2nd District and Richard Ojeda in West Virginia’s 3rd District as examples.
The turnout lesson
One other important lesson from last night’s results, as Alexander Burns and Jonathan Martin point out, is that suburban areas (where the anti-Trump backlash is brewing) appears more energized than rural areas (where Trump voters are concentrated):
In both Franklin County, which includes Columbus, and Delaware County, the fast-growing suburb just north of Ohio’s capital, 42 percent of voters turned out. But in the five more lightly populated counties that round out the district, turnout ranged from 27 to 32 percent.This is an ominous sign for Republicans: The highest-income and best-educated elements of the electorate — those deeply uneasy with President Trump — are showing the most interest in voting. Defending a few dozen districts that are either more heavily urban or feature a similar demographic mix as Ohio’s 12th District, Republicans will need to find a way to win back suburbanites or better galvanize rural voters. If they do not, their House majority will slip away.
The key to this is that Trump and Republicans have been doing everything they can to energize those rural Trump-leaning areas. If you look at the ads that Republicans ran against O’Connor — see here and here — they amount to a festival of Nancy Pelosi-bashing and relentless culture-war demagoguing about crime, the menacing immigrant invasion, and the alleged threat that “the Resistance” poses to traditional values. With the GOP tax cut mostly disappearing from GOP messaging, this represents a last-ditch effort to galvanize Trump’s rural base.
Yet even if Republicans do manage to prevail very narrowly in Ohio’s 12th District, the razor closeness of it — combined with subpar rural turnout — shows this may not be working to the degree that Republicans will need this fall.
At the same time, though, last night’s results also showed that suburban areas are, in fact, energized. And if most of the races of this cycle are any indication, the cause of that is Trump — that is, the backlash to him.
“Trump is the fuel behind the Democratic energy right now,” Gonzales told me. “He’s the reason why these seats are vulnerable. Democrats have harnessed that energy into Democratic recruitment and fundraising. That’s created a lot of takeover opportunities. The bottom line is that Democrats don’t have to run the table on the competitive seats to win the majority.”
None of this guarantees the House for Democrats, of course. The battle favors them right now to some extent, but a lot can change, and Republican structural advantages run deep.
A political tension that can’t be resolved?
Still, last night’s results demonstrate what may prove to be a political tension for Republicans that they won’t be able to resolve. As NBC’s Steve Kornacki points out, Trump is deepening the polarization between the metro/suburb areas, which are growing more Democratic, and the exurban/rural areas, which are growing more Republican:
To judge from OH-12, the metro/suburb vs. rural/exurban divide of the Trump-era is intensifying:— Steve Kornacki (@SteveKornacki) August 8, 2018
Franklin County (Columbus/immediate burbs)
'12: Obama +3
'16: Clinton +18
'18: O'Connor +31
Muskingum County (Zanesville/rural)
'12: Obama +0.15
'16: Trump +29
'18: Balderson +33
But, with the suburban Democratic-tilting areas more energized than the rural GOP areas, the result of this appears to be lopsided in Democrats’ favor.
Which means that Republicans need to triple down on the Trumpist cultural and race-baiting appeals to energize the Trumpist rural base. But even as this might not be producing quite the galvanizing effect they will need, they must keep at this to have any hope of holding the majority. Yet at the same time, this is, in fact, energizing the anti-Trump backlash in the suburbs and beyond, potentially to the degree that will end up enabling Democrats to win.