COLUMBUS, Ohio — It was a muggy Thursday morning when Drew Niccum, a rising sophomore at Ohio State University, drove 40 miles from campus to his hometown of Newark to conduct a rather unusual summer activity for central Ohio: cast a ballot for a Democratic congressional candidate — who just might win.
“It’s been a pretty safe Republican district for a pretty long time,” Niccum said. “I’m just excited that my district is actually competitive this year.”
Ohio’s 12th Congressional District, which spans the largely well-to-do suburbs around the state capital and backed President Trump by 11 points in 2016, has been solidly Republican for decades. Voters here sent now-Gov. John Kasich to Congress in 1982 for the first of nine consecutive terms. Kasich was succeeded in 2001 by Republican Patrick J. Tiberi, who held the office for 17 years before he resigned in January — leaving the seat wide open for the first time in a generation.
But after a string of Republican special-election losses over the past year in areas that voted for Trump but have grown less supportive of him, the vote here on Tuesday to replace Tiberi has suddenly emerged as the latest big test foreshadowing which party will win control of the House in November. The midterm elections, after all, will probably be determined by contests in dozens of similarly conservative-leaning suburban communities across the country.
Prominent Republicans have found themselves following a familiar playbook in yet another special election: Send in the cavalry.
Both House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) and Vice President Pence have made trips to Ohio in recent days to campaign for the GOP candidate, Troy Balderson, 56, a state senator whose mainstream party bona fides would probably make him a slam dunk for victory in ordinary times.
Last week, Trump tweeted his “full and total Endorsement!” of Balderson, then declared that he would fly in himself to host a rally over the weekend in the suburbs of Delaware County, just north of Columbus.
Nevertheless, the 31-year-old Democratic candidate, Danny O’Connor, has kept pace with Balderson, with the latest Monmouth University poll showing the race to be a statistical dead heat.
O’Connor, a lawyer who was elected Franklin County recorder in 2016, has evoked comparisons to another young moderate Democrat, Conor Lamb, whose March special-election victory in a heavily Republican Pennsylvania district that Trump won by 20 points served as an early sign of a potential Democratic wave in the fall. Adding to the GOP’s anxiety is the sense that Ohio, a perennial battleground that Trump easily won two years ago, is looking more like a Democratic stronghold in 2018, with Sen. Sherrod Brown favored to win reelection and the party looking competitive in the governor’s race.
The special election in recent days has offered a glimpse of how the parties are likely to approach their fall campaigns across the country in many key House battlegrounds.
O’Connor is presenting himself as a centrist who is willing to work with Trump at times while attacking Balderson for his opposition to the Affordable Care Act, the health-care law enacted by President Barack Obama that Democrats have rallied around.
Balderson and his allies, meanwhile, are attacking O’Connor as an ally of national Democrats, seizing, for instance, on his comments that he “would support whoever the Democrats put forward” for House speaker after initially saying he would not vote for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). National GOP groups have poured more than $3.3 million into local TV ads, according to NBC News, that have tried to tie O’Connor to Pelosi.
The presence of Trump points to a fundamental question of this year’s elections: whether the president’s ability to excite core GOP voters can overcome the fact that many Republicans who live in closely fought suburban House districts have soured on the president.
Publicly, Balderson’s campaign has embraced Trump’s support. But before Saturday’s rally, some Ohio Republicans voiced skepticism about whether Trump might do more harm than good, especially because the president would be visiting a more affluent, higher-educated, suburban part of the district where Republicans’ support for him has waffled.
“The best-case scenario is that the presence of the president reminds not only Republicans but center-right voters that there’s a special election on Tuesday,” Doug Preisse, chairman of the Franklin County Republican Party and a longtime supporter of Kasich, said Thursday. “Of course, we have no control — as seemingly no one else does — to what [Trump] may say, so ‘Get Out the Vote’ . . . probably won’t be the headline.”
Preisse said the tight race reflected more on Trump than it did the district.
“It’s real interesting, isn’t it? It’s a Republican district. It should be a Republican seat,” Preisse said. “Is this a referendum on Donald Trump? Sure. Every midterm election is, especially the first one after a president is elected — doesn’t matter if he’s popular, unpopular, Republican or Democrat.”
In a freewheeling 70-minute rally inside a sweltering high school gymnasium Saturday night, Trump briefly promoted Balderson as “really tough . . . really smart” and “the guy that’s gonna do things,” while belittling O’Connor as “a low-level person that did nothing.”
“Nancy Pelosi controls Danny O’Connor, whoever the hell that is,” he said.
Balderson, who spoke for only four minutes, returned the praise and — taking a page from Trump’s playbook — tried to give O’Connor a disparaging nickname, calling him “Dishonest Danny.”
“Mr. President, we don’t want to go back,” Balderson said. “I’m not tired of winning.”
Kasich, a Trump critic, endorsed Balderson for his old seat July 26 and filmed a commercial in which he vouched for Balderson as “a partner of mine as a member of the Ohio state legislature” who helped cut taxes and “turn Ohio around.” Balderson, whose campaign did not respond to requests for comment, told Politico that the convergence of Trump and Kasich endorsements was evidence he had united Republicans.
Democrats on the ground say Trump’s visit would only galvanize their efforts in the few days before the election. In a statement Saturday night, O’Connor’s campaign dismissed the rally as a distraction.
“Danny spent all day launching massive volunteer canvasses and speaking to voters across the district about protecting Medicare and Social Security and ensuring that everyone has access to affordable health care,” O’Connor campaign manager Annie Ellison said. “That’s what our campaign is about, not petty name-calling and outright lies.”
O’Connor has steered clear of some of the far-left positions that have taken hold in much of the national Democratic Party. He said he doesn’t support abolishing the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, a position embraced by many liberals. He tells voters that he’s open to working with anyone, including Trump, if and when they agree.
O’Connor often notes that his fiancee, who is campaigning with him, is a Republican. “She’s a Dannycrat now,” he jokes.
“I think I come across as someone who wants to solve problems for people, who wants to get the job done,” O’Connor said.
O’Connor, like many Democrats, has sought to focus his campaign on health care — although he has stopped short of embracing a “Medicare for All” plan that has taken hold on the left.
Balderson opposed Ohio’s Medicaid expansion — which Kasich supported — and has vowed to “repeal and replace Obamacare once and for all.”
O’Connor has said he is vehemently opposed to cutting back access to health care, stemming from his mother’s breast cancer diagnosis in 2005, when O’Connor was a freshman in college. At his campaign office, signs warning of the GOP’s efforts to dismantle the Affordable Care Act are splayed on every wall — even in the bathroom.
“Once you have breast cancer, it’s a preexisting condition for the rest of your life, and for me, I don’t want us to go back to being a country that says, ‘You’ve done everything right but you get breast cancer and now you don’t get health care,’ ” O’Connor said. “I mean, that’s just — that’s bulls---.”