The close margin between Republican Troy Balderson — the expected winner of Tuesday’s Ohio Congressional District 12 special election — and Democrat Danny O’Connor leaves political junkies probing a question that can only be answered in November.
Will the so-called “blue wave” of Democratic voters actually come?
And if it does, what does it mean for historically-strong Republicans like Rep. Mike Turner, R-Dayton, and Rep. Steve Chabot, R-Cincinnati, who are facing Democrats with plumper pocketbooks than years past?
“Given how narrow the Republican advantage is in the U.S. House, the Democrats have a real opportunity to win the majority, but they need to win some of these tight elections,” said Mark Caleb Smith, director of the Center for Political Studies at Cedarville University.
The best window into the Republican mindset may have been expressed by the head of a GOP super PAC that spent more than $3 million dollars to help Republicans save the District 12 central Ohio seat the party has held since 1983.
“While we won tonight, this remains a very tough political environment and, moving forward, we cannot expect to win tough races when our candidate is being out-raised,” said Corry Bliss of the Congressional Leadership Fund in what was supposed to be a congratulatory message about the GOP candidate.
Translation: Don’t expect us to keep bailing you out.
In order to try to win a seat in a district President Donald Trump won in 2016 by 11 points, outside GOP groups had to spend some $5 million, and bring in visits by the president, Vice President Mike Pence and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California. The Republicans appeared to have out-spent Democrats by five-to-one.
All that firepower, and it’s still not certain that they’ve won: 8,483 absentee and provisional votes still must be counted. If they bend O’Connor’s way, they could hand him a narrow victory or a shot at an automatic recount. He would need to win 79 percent of the remaining, uncounted ballots to make up the deficit, assuming every provisional ballot will be counted and every ballot mailed overseas or to a member of the military is returned within 10 days.
Turnout was around 37 percent during the dead of August – far higher than turnout for a special election in the middle of August was expected to be, said Paul Beck, an emeritus political science professor at Ohio State University.
“For a Democrat to come as close as O’Connor did is remarkable,” he said. “It sends a good signal for Democrats nationwide in terms of continuing the momentum of a possible blue wave in November.” And in November, he noted, O’Connor can rely on more Democrats who are also voting in the gubernatorial and Senate races.
If Democratic voters turn out for Aftab Pureval and Theresa Gasper — the two candidates facing off against Cincinnati and Warren County’s Chabot and Dayton and Greene County’s Turner, respectively — the races there could be closer than usual.
In particular, Democrats were ecstatic that O’Connor lost heavily Republican Delaware County by eight points when Trump carried the county by 16 points in the 2016 presidential election.
“Did you see how close it was?” Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley said of Delaware County. Whaley, who joined a group of Dayton volunteers Sunday to knock on doors in Delaware County, said, “Women jumped up and down when I got to their door. The excitement from women was pretty cool.”
Whaley added on Twitter, “Now I know why I have seen Mike Turner at so many more events in Dayton lately. #SomebodyIsNervous.”
Turner did not comment for this article. Gasper, his opponent, said in a statement that O’Connor’s “near-upset is definitive proof that change is coming and that a November blue wave is well within reach.”
Sarah Topy, Pureval’s campaign manager, said she’s seen momentum for months. When the campaign opened an office in March, for example, she said 400 people showed up. And she said they had 150 people go to a Memorial Day parade in Warren County.
The 12th District race, she said, “reinforces what we’re doing.”
“People are fed up with how dysfunctional, how toxic, Washington is, and Steve Chabot is part of that,” she said.
Chabot, meanwhile, played off O’Connor’s close run as inconsequential to his own re-election bid.
“What does this race mean for the upcoming midterm elections?” Chabot asked in a recent blog post. “Not all that much in my humble opinion.”
“I think the fall election will be much closer to a normal off-year election turnout model. But of course we won’t know for sure until then,” Chabot wrote.
Echoed Cody Rizzuto, Chabot’s campaign spokesperson: “In a special election, the party out of power has the advantage, and yet even that advantage apparently wasn’t enough for Democrats last night.”
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