Opinion writer

A number of analyses of the Ohio special election results — including the one offered by your humble blogger earlier today — focused on the outsize energy in the suburbs of Columbus, where Democrat Danny O’Connor ran up large vote totals, something that bodes well for Democratic chances this fall.

But it’s also worth taking a quick look at how O’Connor performed in some of the rural, exurban counties, because that sheds a bit of light on an argument that has simmered among Democrats over how to win back working-class whites.

Largely because of a suburban surge, O’Connor was able to keep the race within a point in the state’s 12th Congressional District, which Donald Trump carried by 11 points in 2016. But what also helped was that he improved to some degree on Hillary Clinton’s performance in some of the more blue-collar, small-town counties, as well.

O’Connor outperformed Clinton by nontrivial margins in Richland, Marion, and Licking counties. This ended up not being enough, first, because Republican Troy Balderson ran up huge numbers in his home county of Muskingum (another blue-collar, small-town county), and also because Balderson mostly matched Trump’s vote share in all the other blue-collar counties. O’Connor appears to have improved in these areas by capturing much of the vote that had gone to a third-party candidate in 2016. Nonetheless, he did outperform Clinton in three of these counties to close the gap compared to 2016 — though Balderson did come close to Trump’s share of the vote in all these counties.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on Capitol Hill in December 2017. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)

I asked pollster Jason McGrath, whose firm GBA Strategies conducted O’Connor’s polling, how he did this. McGrath told me that one important ingredient was a focus on jobs, health care and infrastructure spending.

McGrath noted that one reason for the improvement was that Republican turnout in these areas was lackluster, while the (much smaller) number of Democratic voters in them were more galvanized. He also said O’Connor had been able to win over some independent voters who supported Trump, as well as moderate Republicans, with a focus on issues.

“We had to run on real issues and be grownups and talk about things that matter to people,” McGrath said.

To be sure, these O’Connor gains in tough areas didn’t really upend the larger pattern we’ve been seeing in the Trump era. As Ron Brownstein demonstrates, this race showed that Trump continues to deepen the polarization between suburban/urban areas on the one hand, and exurban/rural areas on the other. Once again, the Republican ran up huge, Trumpian totals in blue-collar white strongholds — especially relative to Mitt Romney’s totals among them in 2012 — while losing ground relative to Romney in more educated, suburban, white-collar areas.

But still, O’Connor did improve on Clinton’s performance in some of the rural and exurban Trump-friendly areas, even if it may not have been enough to win. O’Connor’s approach carried echoes of another Democrat who pulled off a huge upset in Trump country — Conor Lamb in western Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District. Lamb emphasized jobs, unions and social insurance to prevail in hostile territory.

O’Connor ran ads that vowed to rebuild infrastructure, made a personal case for improving access to health care, and argued that congressional Republicans are doing nothing for “working families.”

The route to a Democratic House majority probably will have to run through many more educated and suburban districts. But for Democrats, the map is also getting broader because they are putting some districts with a lot of working-class white voters in play. Democrats have been consumed in an argument over how to reach out to working-class whites without backing off their commitment to minority rights and immigrants. In this district, Republicans worked hard to tar the Democrat as the candidate of crime and open borders, to galvanize the blue collar white vote. In the face of these attacks, O’Connor stressed a bread-and-butter Democratic message about jobs, infrastructure and health care.

The fact he came so close in Trump country will mean other Democratic candidates will be looking at his approach to winning back these voters, even if doesn’t look like it was quite enough.