The closely watched special election in Ohio’s 12th Congressional District will stay that way for at least a little while longer. With 100 percent of the precincts reporting, Republican Troy Balderson led Democrat Danny O’Connor by just 0.9 points, 50.2 percent to 49.3 percent, but no major outlet had dared to project a winner in the race as of early Wednesday. Ohio law calls for a mandatory recount if the final margin is within a half point, which could be where we’re heading once all the provisional ballots are counted.
As for its bearing on the midterms, though, this race has already told us pretty much everything it can. Donald Trump won the district by 11 points two years ago, and Democrats haven’t represented it in Congress in three-plus decades. That the contest turned out to be as close as it did is shocking, regardless of who wins—or it would have been shocking, anyway, if it weren’t for the surprises of the previous 10 federal elections since Trump took office. Democrats have performed better, often way better, than the makeup of their respective electorates would predict. That was true in Pennsylvania, where Conor Lamb beat the partisan lean of his district (as measured by FiveThirtyEight) by 22 points to win his congressional race by a few tenths of a point. It was true in South Carolina, where Archie Parnell beat the lean by 16 points, to come up only 3 points short. And it’s true in Ohio, where O’Connor is on pace to beat expectations by about 13 points.
If Balderson can hold on, Republicans will avoid a national embarrassment like the one they suffered in Alabama this past December and in western Pennsylvania this spring. But even then, Balderson’s razor-thin margin of victory would be more worrisome for the GOP than his win would be reassuring. Republicans pulled out all the stops in this one. National GOP groups spent millions in the race, Donald Trump held one of his MAGA rallies in the district over the weekend, and Ohio Gov. John Kasich—one of the few #NeverTrump Republicans still in office, and someone who held this seat for nearly two decades—supported Balderson.
That kind of GOP unity is hardly guaranteed in the fall, and Republicans won’t have the luxury of devoting so much time and money to each battleground district between now and November. The GOP currently holds roughly 60 congressional districts that are less Republican than this one, according to the Cook Political Report’s partisan index. Democrats, then, could lose half of those districts this fall and still win the 23 seats they need to retake the House next year.
Still, according to the old saying I may have just made up, all special elections are special in their own way, and so it would be a mistake to draw sweeping conclusion from this one alone. For all the surrounding hype, the only thing actually at stake in this contest is who gets to serve out the final few months of former Rep. Pat Tiberi’s term. Yes, the winner will head to Capitol Hill, but he won’t be there long unless he wins a November rematch with the man he just defeated. And yes, the nail-biting nature of this contest in a dark-red district bodes well for Democrats this fall. The real question, though, has never been whether they can pick up House seats in the midterms—it’s whether they can pick up enough.