A special election in Ohio’s 12th congressional district merely to determine who will hold the seat until the new Congress is seated in January shouldn’t mean that much for those outside the district. However, in the Trump era, every tea leaf must be read in anticipation of the November midterms, which are quickly becoming a referendum on President Trump. Pollsters had the race as a dead heat, and in this case, they had it exactly right. When the votes were all counted Tuesday, Republican Troy Balderson had the lead over Democrat Danny O’Connor by less than 1 percent (about 1,700 votes). However, the Columbus Dispatch reported that there are about 8,500 provisional and military ballots outstanding. O’Connor has yet to concede.
An upscale suburban district where average household income is more than $90,000 and 40 percent of residents have a college degree? It should have been a slam dunk for Republicans. (This was now-Gov. John Kasich’s old seat, remember.) The Ohio-12 was the sort of district Mitt Romney easily won (54 percent to 44 percent) — not unlike a few dozen seats we see scattered all across the country, currently held by a Republicans but in play for the first time. Instead, the race turned out to be a virtual dead heat. (Think about a Democrat running even with a Republican, say, in Boston.) A district rated +14 Republican is now a dead heat.
It’s far from clear whether Trump’s appearance in the district (purportedly not at the request of the candidate) hurt or helped Balderson. However, it should be noted that the rural parts of the district saw low turnout, while suburban areas had high turnout. This suggests that Trump didn’t do much for Balderson. If Balderson prevails, he might owe his win to Kasich, who backed him.
Furthermore, Republicans cannot be certain whether focusing on crime and immigration rather than the tax cut (which Republicans swore would be political gold) allowed Balderson to slip by or made the race closer than it would otherwise have been.
The district is so heavily Republican that Democrats were prepared to declare victory so long as the race was close. It was really close, depriving partisans of their definitive outcome. Perhaps it is a reminder that special elections, despite the amount of attention they garner, have little predictive value. Charlie Cook wrote before all the votes were counted:
The fact is, we knew a year ago that the Republican majority in the House was in danger, we knew it a month ago, we know it today, and we will know it tomorrow, next week, and all the way up to Election Day. Special elections in odd years and early in election years can give us an indication of which way the wind is blowing and a rough idea of velocity, but once you get within 100 days or so of the general election, electoral dynamics are pretty much set. In modern history, we’ve never seen a directional change in the last three months of a midterm-election campaign. Waves can stay the same or increase in the closing months, but they don’t reverse direction or dissipate.
In other words, the cake already has been baked for November. Running an essentially even race in a district that should not remotely be in play will please Democrats. For Republicans, they averted complete disaster but should keep preparing for a big blue wave. They need to worry about more than 60 seats that are less Republican than the Ohio-12.
Finally, one myth that should die with the race is the notion that the Democratic Party has to choose between the O’Connor profile and the far-left-leaning Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez profile. In fact, major political parties have never operated that way, at least not successfully. The Democrats can run O’Connor in the Ohio 12th (and last night’s winning, moderate gubernatorial nominee Gretchen Whitmer in Michigan) but run Ocasio-Cortez in the New York 14th. They will all agree that Trump’s tax cuts for the rich are bad, “dreamers” are good, health-care coverage must be expanded and Russia is not our friend. For now, that’s more than enough to hold the Democrats together. Progressive bona fides will matter in 2020, when one Democrat has to represent the entire party, but that’s still two years away, so we might hit “pause” on the talk of a Democratic civil war.