A special congressional election in Ohio will be the last test of voter sentiment nationally before November's high stakes midterm election — and the topic of President Donald Trump is never far away.
Up for grabs on Aug. 7 are the last few months of former U.S. Rep. Pat Tiberi's unexpired term. The long-serving establishment Republican retired from the 12th Congressional District in January, creating a coveted open U.S. House seat.
Republican Troy Balderson, a two-term state senator from Zanesville, is running with Tiberi's backing. The 57-year-old is a Trump supporter, but he's also aligning himself with Republican Ohio Gov. John Kasich, an outspoken Trump critic.
Democrat Danny O'Connor, 31, the Franklin County recorder, also has taken care not to criticize Kasich, whose statewide popularity remains high, in part, due to an increase among Democrats as he's maintained a steady barrage of negative commentary against the president.
O'Connor is considered a long shot, given the gerrymandered district has been controlled for nearly 35 years by the GOP. But national Democrats see a chance for O'Connor in the district's shifting demographics, tightening polls and a national mood of caution toward Trump.
In an unusual move, the traditionally conservative Columbus Dispatch endorsed O'Connor over Balderson, saying it could not recommend a vote for a Trump supporter.
"By all accounts, both O'Connor and Balderson are decent, successful men who would work hard for voters of the 12th District," the newspaper wrote. "But one supports a reasonable, thoughtful approach to addressing the important issues facing Congress and our country, and the other supports a president who uses tactics and pushes policies that this Editorial Board has denounced."
Tiberi was among a group of Republican moderates who resigned or declined to seek re-election under Trump. He held the district for 18 years and Kasich held it for 18 years before that. The 12th District sprawls from urban, Democrat-heavy Franklin County, home to Columbus, into Trump-supporting suburban and rural areas stretching east to Zanesville and the Appalachian foothills.
Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato's Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia, said Balderson has led every poll that he has seen by 5 to 10 percentage points. But he said the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee's decision to place a $238,000 ad buy last week — a particularly dicey one for Trump — is telling, given the party has dozens of other districts across the country that are potentially a better investment.
"It's possible that this Putin blow-up may have a cascading negative effect on Balderson. Not that Balderson has anything to do with it directly — he doesn't," Kondik said. "But if the attitudes toward the president are weaker than usual at the time of this election, that's a problem for Balderson."
Chris Martin, a spokesman for the National Republican Campaign Committee, said Balderson is hard-working, well-known by district voters and represents the right mix of policy positions to prevail.
"Troy Balderson is a perfect fit for this district," Martin said. "He's earned broad support from Republicans, independents and even Democrats by campaigning on cutting middle-class taxes, securing the border and fighting for the agenda that President Trump promised voters in 2016."
Democrats and their allies see the district's political mix and shifting demographics as an opportunity.
Working America, an arm of the Ohio AFL-CIO labor union umbrella, produced a recent report that it said shows promise for O'Connor's candidacy. The survey of voters and canvassers pointed to similarities between Ohio's 12th District and educated, high-income suburban areas where voters have supported Democrats since 2016.
"The Columbus suburbs are similar to the suburban Pittsburgh and Northern Virginia communities that have swung away from the right and toward Democrats emphasizing worker issues," the report said. "Making inroads with both wealthier suburban and working-class voters will be critical to Democratic efforts to retake Ohio this fall."
The Green Party has one candidate, Joe Manchik.