It’s time for Republicans to start worrying again.
A special election next week in Ohio’s 12th Congressional District is the last big electoral test before November’s election, a showdown in a once deep-red suburban House seat that Donald Trump won just two years ago by 11 points.
Now, however, both parties view the race between GOP nominee Troy Balderson and Democratic nominee Danny O’Connor as a toss-up — and that’s a warning sign for GOP candidates already bracing for a difficult election environment, especially in suburban districts that will help determine control of the House this fall.
The race’s urgency was underscored this week with the announcement that Trump would hold a last-minute campaign event on Saturday in the district ahead of Tuesday’s vote, as well as the release of a new poll showing the race effectively tied.
“In a good year, in a good environment, you probably wouldn’t worry so much about this district,” said Scott Jennings, a veteran Republican strategist who ran Mitt Romney’s Ohio operation in 2012. “In a bad year, a bad environment, it’s exactly the kind of district you worry about, particularly because of the suburban elements that exist in this district.”
Added a national Republican strategist with close ties to Ohio, “The story of this race is going to be a lot more of an accurate picture of what House Republicans can expect this fall than any special election we’ve seen up to this point.”
GOP groups have rushed to help Balderson, who has struggled to match Democratic enthusiasm and money, and has been heavily outspent on the airwaves, stoking concerns among national Republicans.
Congressional Leadership Fund, the super PAC aligned with House GOP leadership, has spent nearly $2.7 million on the race, according to communications director Courtney Alexander. And a media-buying source confirmed that the National Republican Congressional Committee’s independent expenditure arm has spent around $1 million, and the NRCC also is spending through the coordinated committee with Balderson.
National Democrats, meanwhile, made a late investment of their own in the race, with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spending nearly $400,000 on TV ads.
Longtime GOP Rep. Pat Tiberi triggered the special election last year when he announced his retirement from Congress, after holding the seat since 2001—one of many veteran Republicans to retire this year and spark competitive open-seat elections. Before that, the district, which stretches from suburban Columbus into rural central and eastern Ohio, was represented by now-Gov. John Kasich, a moderate Republican who is one of the few GOP officials willing to openly break with Trump. He has endorsed Balderson, giving Republicans some hope that their nominee will be able to hang onto moderates while also appealing to a more populist, Trump-loving base.
Yet despite its deep GOP lineage, Republicans openly acknowledge that they expect this race to be tight.
“When all is said and done, he’ll gut out a tough win,” said former Ohio GOP Chair Matt Borges, who said he is aiding Balderson.
Others, publicly and privately, were blunter about pinning the challenge on both moderate suburbanites who have soured entirely on Trump’s party, as well as the energized progressive base that has activated across the country to oppose the GOP.
A poll released Wednesday from Monmouth University found Balderson leading O’Connor by just one point, 44 percent to 43 percent. The survey showed a 10-point swing from last month, when Monmouth found Balderson up by 11 points, 43 percent to 33 percent.
The GOP’s problem with suburban voters, who have recoiled from the party in large part because of Trump’s personality and conduct in office, has also manifested itself in a handful of special elections this election cycle, including a closely watched race in suburban Atlanta last year between Democrat Jon Ossoff and Republican Karen Handel. Ossoff lost that contest.
But both Republicans and Democrats are more likely to compare Ohio’s special election to one in suburban Pittsburgh earlier this year, where Democrat Conor Lamb defeated a Republican challenger in a district Trump had won by 20 points in 2016. Both districts pair relatively wealthy suburbs with more conservative rural areas, where Democrats haven’t fielded a competitive candidate in years but have since been buoyed by an energized liberal base.
“This district has a number of more moderate Republicans who are less comfortable with the Republican Party than they were just a few years ago,” said David Pepper, chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party.
O’Connor’s message to voters is strikingly similar to Lamb’s in one particular way: Both men have said that they would vote against Nancy Pelosi as leader of the House Democratic caucus. Like Lamb, O’Connor even featured the promise in a TV ad.
That pledge came under scrutiny last week, after O’Connor said he would vote for whomever Democrats put forward as a leader — an admission Republicans immediately seized on in an ad as they again test the potency of arguments that tie Democrats to Pelosi.
Dozens of House Democratic candidates across the electoral map, many of them from conservative districts, have said they would not back Pelosi as leader, a tactic that appeared to gain momentum after Lamb won in March despite repeated attempts by Republicans to link him to the polarizing lawmaker from San Francisco.
Pepper said although he thinks Democratic House candidates can win even if they don’t make a similar promise, O’Connor’s pledge has nonetheless helped him make the case to voters that he would shake up a dysfunctional status quo in Washington.
“It’s been an important part of Danny’s approach,” he said.
Democrats say their best advantage remains a super-energized base, one furious about Trump’s presidency that has turned its anger into direct support for Democratic candidates. If O’Connor wins on Tuesday, his allies say it will be a result of the enthusiasm of Democratic voters who turned out even at a time, the summer, when voters are usually least politically engaged.
“Democrats are bleeding from their eyes to get to the polls,” said one Democrat working on O’Connor’s campaign.
Republicans are hopeful that their enthusiasm problem will ebb by November, after the special elections pass and their voters naturally pay closer attention to politics and find new reasons to mobilize in the face of a Democratic Party drifting leftward. But they acknowledge that the Ohio race still offers a key glimpse of what could come in November, especially given that O’Connor and Balderson are seen — unlike the savvy Lamb — as relatively average candidates who are neither superstars nor political liabilities.
“In a lot of ways,” the GOP strategist said, “this particular race is going to be maybe the most accurate bellwether for what Republican suburban candidates will face this fall.”