The eyes of the political world are focusing on Tuesday’s closely fought special congressional election between state Sen. Troy Balderson and Franklin County Recorder Danny O’Connor in central Ohio.
It is the last special congressional election before the November midterms and will be closely watched for signals about the fall races.
A half-dozen factors to watch as the race for the open 12th Congressional District seat draws to a close:
1. The early vote
When the first results are announced Tuesday, Democrat O’Connor almost certainly will be ahead.
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That’s because early votes are unveiled shortly after the polls close, and Democrats have dominated those ballots. The rest of the evening is spent counting Election Day votes, which Balderson is likely to have more of.
Democrats got an early advantage by sending out their “request for absentee ballot” forms earlier than Republicans, and the hard work paid off: As of Thursday, 12,579 Democrats in the district had requested early ballots, with 10,565 actually returning them. By contrast, 11,398 Republicans had requested ballots, while 7,757 had returned them.
Through Friday, 55 percent of the early votes had come from registered Democrats in Franklin, Delaware and Licking counties — which contain about four-fifths of the 12th District’s population — compared with 30 percent from Republicans, according to figures compiled by election statistics guru Mike Dawson. Compare that to a Republican advantage of 35 percent to 26 percent in the November 2016 vote, and the Democratic turnaround is obvious.
That means the outcome could come down to Democratic enthusiasm vs. late get-out-the-vote pushes by Republicans featuring President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence in the heavily GOP district.
2. The timing
Aug. 7 is, according to one GOP operative, a “lousy” time to have an election. Not only is it in the dead of summer, it’s also the week before school begins for much of the state. That’s a key week for vacations.
But it’s also the only game in town — in fact, the last game in town — until November, meaning political reporters are destined to sweep in during the final days of the campaign for the inevitable state-of-the-midterms story. So while the population may be more sparse, the attention will be acute.
3. The turnout
This means the early vote may take on additional importance. It will definitely mean that turnout is everything in this election. Voters traditionally show up at a lower level during midterms. They vote at an even-lower level during special elections.
The winner will be the one who motivates voters to get out at a time when casting a ballot is at the bottom of most people’s list of priorities. Republicans already concede that, in retrospect, they wish they’d spent more time on get–out–the–vote efforts.
That’s why President Trump’s visit Saturday to Olentangy Orange High School was regarded as so important. Trump delivered his usual mix of praise for local Republicans who support him, braggadocio, harsh condemnation of O’Connor and the news media and factual misstatements in an attempt to gin up lackluster GOP interest.
4. The cash
Way back when he was in Congress last year, Rep. Pat Tiberi was a big reason that incumbents had such a heavy cash advantage over challengers. When he announced he was leaving Congress in October, the Genoa Township Republican had $6.6 million in his campaign coffers — more than four times as much as any other Ohio U.S. House incumbent.
Times have changed.
Between July 1 and July 18, O’Connor raised $587,875. Balderson raised $138,776. O’Connor had $129,201 in the bank, while Balderson had $208,032. And, in a sign of broader Democratic enthusiasm, O’Connor was just one of six Democrats in Republican-held Ohio congressional districts that outraised a GOP incumbent.
In other words, the Democratic grassroots are motivated this year to put their own resources into November. But will it be enough in districts gerrymandered by the GOP?
5. Delaware County
Republicans concede that O’Connor will likely win Franklin County handily. They’re confident about Muskingum, Marion, Licking, Morrow and Richland counties.
The X-factor, however, is Delaware County — a big reason Trump visited there Saturday.
The county supported Trump over Democrat Hillary Clinton by 15 points in 2016. But while that seems a solid lead, it was narrower than in most other counties in Ohio. The county is also heavily populated by a more business-friendly, moderate breed of Republican than the populist Trump.
“It’s not a question of whether Balderson carries Delaware or Licking counties,” said Herb Asher, a political science professor emeritus at Ohio State University. “It really is the margins. O’Connor can make some in-roads there.”
Delaware County is the fastest growing county in the state of Ohio, just north of Columbus.
6. Surrogate city
Balderson has gotten endorsements from President Trump and Ohio Gov. John Kasich — possibly the first time in months the two have agreed on anything significant. And he’s drawn the support of the Congressional Leadership Fund, a super-PAC affiliated with House Speaker Paul Ryan, which has poured more than $2.5 million into his race.
O’Connor has key endorsements from Sen. Sherrod Brown, Rep. Joyce Beatty and Franklin County Commissioner John O’Grady, but O’Connor hasn’t brought in the sort of political celebrities Balderson has. The Democrat was left off a list of candidates former President Barack Obama endorsed last week.
O’Connor has received outside support from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, but the amount pales in comparison to what the CLF and the NRCC have dumped into the race. And, most notably, he’s shunned House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi.
If Balderson wins, it means the Republican establishment — pretty much all of it, including Trump supporters and never-Trumpers — successfully united to defend a long-held GOP district. If O’Connor wins, it’s a sign that the GOP can throw everything at a race in friendly territory and still go down this year. And O’Connor’s running criticism of the GOP tax revamp as a campaign issue could provide a road map for Democratic campaigns for November.
“The 12th is the canary in the coal mine for Republicans,” said David Cohen, a political science professor at the University of Akron. “And if the canary dies, I think many Republican Congress people are going to be looking for jobs.”
Regardless of who wins Tuesday, they get to do it all over again in November when both candidates face each other in the race for a full-term in Congress.