In deciding to weigh in on the spirited special congressional election in central Ohio, President Donald Trump is doing more than just trying to help a Republican win the seat.
He’s also made it a referendum on his own performance as president.
In an effort to inject some life into Republican voters, Trump will speak Saturday night on behalf of Republican congressional candidate Troy Balderson at the Delaware County Fairgrounds, just north of Columbus.
Trump is gambling he can rescue the Republicans from what would be a staggering political defeat in a congressional district held by Gov. John Kasich and retired Rep. Pat Tiberi since 1983 while simultaneously cementing his brand of populism over the Kasich wing of the Republican Party wary of his stands on tariffs and immigration.
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But Trump will campaign at a time when his own style has fueled a backlash against him among moderate Republican women and Democrats, the latter who are more energized than at any time since President Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election.
“This election is like any of the House races in November,” said David Cohen, a political science professor at the University of Akron. “A referendum on Donald Trump.”
Both Trump and Kasich have endorsed Balderson, a Republican state senator who is in a vigorous political battle against Democrat Danny O’Connor, the Franklin County recorder who has the enthusiastic backing of energetic Democrats.
O’Connor has strong roots to the Dayton region. He grew up in Sidney, graduated from Lehman Catholic High School and earned a political science degree at Wright State University.
“Troy Balderson is the only person in America who’s figured out how to unite President Trump and John Kasich,” said Rep. Steve Stivers, who heads the House Republican national re-election effort.
Jai Chabria, a former Kasich adviser, said GOP voters in Delaware and Licking counties are “still Republicans and there is a very common thread among all of them.”
“Pundits are trying to make this into some huge civil war when that’s not the case in the voters’ minds,” Chabria said. “The majority of Republicans have respect for both leaders, so this makes complete sense.”
Yet the drawbacks of Trump’s appearance are obvious. First of all, Kasich does not plan to attend the event, a move that will loudly signal the party is divided.
And if Balderson loses after visits by Trump and Vice President Mike Pence and more than $3 million spent by House Republicans and their Super PAC allies, it will be a stinging setback for Trump and inject a jolt into his hopes of holding the House in November.
“People are looking for some stability and he is the king of chaos right now,” said Youngstown-area Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Niles, who has campaigned for O’Connor.
“This district is obviously aware of the importance of business and growth and tolerance — that is the culture of central Ohio,” Ryan said. “They want stability, they want tolerance and they want growth and Trump is against all of those — whether talking about tariffs or immigration issue.”
During his first year in office, Trump has had mixed success in campaigning for other Republicans. Last September, he campaigned on behalf of Republican Sen. Luther Strange in Alabama who then went on to lose the GOP primary to ultra conservative Roy Moore, a state judge, who lost the special election to Democrat Doug Jones.
Last January, Trump campaigned for Republican Rick Saccone in a special congressional election in Pittsburgh. GOP internal tracking polls showed Saccone’s popularity dipped after Trump’s visit and he lost the general election in March to Democrat Conor Lamb.
Cohen said while Trump may motivate GOP voters, he’ll likely do little to win over the independents Balderson will need to win.
“I think Trump is simply preaching to the choir when he comes out and holds a rally,” he said.
Trump carried the central Ohio district by 11 points in 2016 over Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. The district is not homogeneous, but rather a tug-of-war between fervent Trump voters in the east against Kasich suburban supporters in Delaware County, the latter who are “not diehard (U.S. Rep.) Jim Jordan Republicans or Donald Trump Republicans,” said Herb Asher, a professor emeritus of political science at Ohio State University.
The trick will be to paper over the differences and meld Kasich voters with Trump backers. Bruce Cuthbertson, a former adviser to Kasich and Tiberi, said Balderson “needs all Republicans and all conservatives and all like-minded people to line up behind him and getting the endorsement of both the president and the governor is a big step toward getting that mission accomplished.”
Alex Conant, a Republican consultant in Washington, said “special elections are all about turnout. The candidate who wins is the one who gets the most of his partisans out.”
“Having both Kasich and Trump urging Republicans to vote is no doubt helpful to the Republican candidate,” Conant said. “These are turnout exercises, not persuasion contests and anyone who has a mike and encourages people to turn out is an asset.”
For Balderson, the danger is the closer he gets to Trump, the more he opens himself up to O’Connor accusing him of being a rubber stamp for the controversial president, a message which would resonate with district voters in Franklin County.
“It’s almost like Troy is going to be a rubber stamp” for Trump, Asher said. “And even among Trump supporters who like him, the idea of having some sort of check on the president is not such a bad thing, especially in districts like the 12th District.”