Panicked by recent polling and fearing another loss on the national stage, Republicans are scrambling to hold on to a district Donald Trump won comfortably two years ago. Sound familiar? It should by now. After a high-profile loss in Alabama last December and another in Pennsylvania in March—as well as a too-close-for-comfort victory in Arizona in April—the GOP is desperate to win next week’s congressional special election in Ohio.
Trump plans to touch down in the district this weekend to rally support for Republican Troy Balderson, who is running for the seat former Rep. Pat Tiberi vacated at the end of January. House Republicans are also lending their support in the form of millions of dollars via their official campaign arm and a Paul Ryan-aligned super PAC. House Democrats haven’t gotten involved to the same degree, though their campaign arm did make a late splash in the form of a mid-six-figure TV ad buy backing their nominee, Danny O’Connor.
You don’t need to squint to see a contest that looks a lot like the special election Democrat Conor Lamb won this spring. That district included parts of suburban Pittsburgh as well as more rural areas of Pennsylvania; this one includes suburban Columbus as well as more rural parts of Ohio. Trump won both districts comfortably, and O’Connor has largely been working from the same moderate playbook Lamb used to win his race. O’Connor, for instance, doesn’t support single-payer health care, abolishing the U.S. Immigration and Custom Enforcement agency, or electing Nancy Pelosi as House speaker. (Though he did create a headache for himself recently when he accidentally stated the obvious: He’d vote for Pelosi over a Republican.)
Just as Lamb did, O’Connor has closed the gap considerably coming down the home stretch, adding to the suspense and boosting national interest. A Monmouth University poll released Wednesday showed a statistical dead heat—Balderson 44 percent, O’Connor 43 percent among potential voters—a 10-point swing in the Democrat’s favor since the same pollsters asked the question in June. Non-partisan handicappers, likewise, see the race as toss-up.
There are some big differences, however. Ohio’s 12th District isn’t quite as red as Pennsylvania’s old 18th District. Trump won the latter by 20 points in 2016, but the former by “just” 11 points. The western Pennsylvania seat opened up after GOP Rep. Tim Murphy resigned in disgrace; the central Ohio one opened up after Tiberi resigned to move home to lead a business group. And then there are the candidates themselves. Lamb looks like something his party might design in a lab to win a red district, while his opponent was largely seen as a dud by his own party; O’Connor and Balderson each fall safely in between.
Another wrinkle: Balderson has the support of both Trump and one of the few remaining #NeverTrump Republicans still in office in Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who held this seat before Tiberi. Kasich recently agreed to cut an ad for Balderson, and his support might be enough to convince some slice of Trump-skeptical conservatives to vote GOP on Tuesday. Alternatively, Kasich Republicans could be turned off when Trump comes to town on Saturday.
As the last special election before November, the Ohio contest will give both parties’ one more look at how voters are feeling in the age of Trump. What they see—or what they think they see—will help shape their strategies this summer and into the fall. Ultimately, though, the results won’t determine which party controls Congress, or even who holds this specific seat come January. O’Connor and Balderson will face off again in the midterms to determine their fates for the next two years. The same goes for both of their parties.
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