Ohio’s 12th Congressional District special election next month is being closely watched around the country—not just for what it says about Ohio, but for what it might mean for midterm elections around the country.
The Republican-leaning seat in Central Ohio was formerly held by Rep. Pat Tiberi, and before him by Gov. John Kasich. It’s been solidly red for 40 years now, but there are signs the Democrat running to replace Tiberi in the special August election has a good shot of winning.
The 12th District contains parts of Richland, Morrow, Licking and Muskingum counties—including Mansfield and Zanesville. But the bulk of the 12th District is in more affluent suburban areas of Columbus, including Dublin, New Albany and Delaware County. It’s tough for a Democrat to win, or even come close, in this district.
Newcomer Vs. State Senator
Republican Troy Balderson and Democrat Danny O’Connor beat several opponents to win their primaries in May and will face off again in November.
Ohio Democratic Party chair David Pepper says he thinks O’Connor, the Franklin County recorder and relative political newcomer, can beat Balderson, a seasoned state Senator.
“You know Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell or Paul Ryan’s PAC, whatever it is, is now spending hundreds or thousands of more dollars which shows you they are scared,” Pepper says.
Pepper says that Donald Trump’s tweet endorsing Balderson shows Republicans are “scared.”
“So we know we are the underdogs,” Pepper says. “We know it’s an uphill battle because it’s a tough district, but we are also seeing a lot of momentum. The polling shows that Danny has pulled within five points if not closer. We are seeing far more energy on our side at the grass roots level.”
Pepper says Republicans are so scared that they are engaging in smear tactics and making thinly veiled threats to voters.
“You know, there are voters in Delaware County who are literally receiving mailers that say, ‘We know if you voted or not. Don’t let the liberal win,’ almost like Big Brother is watching all of them as they vote so when you see them take that stuff out, you know they are worried.”
The Ohio Republican Party’s Rob Secaur says these mailers are not attempts to intimidate voters.
“I think that only shows Democrats are behind the times in tactics,” Secaur says. “This has been happening for years. You know, I’ve seen this in Presidential politics, state politics and across the country. It’s social pressure to get folks to vote. And it’s talking about how important it is to make your voice heard and I don’t think there’s any problem with doing that.”
Secaur says Balderson’s race is tighter than he’d like, but he cautions not to read too much into that.
“Special elections and especially in the year of the first midterm after a presidential, yes, it always goes against the party that won the presidency, but I think there’s real enthusiasm on the ground for Troy as well,” he says. “I mean we had a great kickoff rally for a walk this weekend. We have another one coming up this weekend, and Ohio Republicans are excited to get Troy Balderson elected to the 12th."
The Race Tightens
In recent weeks, political pollsters have moved the race from having an advantage for Balderson to being a wide-open contest. Kyle Kondik with Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball, a leading political forecasting project, is the latest to put the race into the “toss up” category.
“I think a lot of people, including myself, saw the Republican as a soft favorite in this district given that this district is significantly right of the center both in Ohio and nationally, but also it’s a competitive enough district that a Democrat could win under the right circumstances," Kondik says.
Kondik has also moved the congressional race between incumbent Republican Rep. Steve Chabot and Democrat Aftab Pureval in Cincinnati to a toss-up. So Kondik says even if Balderson wins, if the race is tight, it could be a bad sign for Republicans in the fall.
“I think there are a lot of indicators showing the Republican House majority is in serious danger coming this November, and one of those data points is the Democratic over-performance in Republican leaning special elections," Kondik says.
Early vote totals so far show more Democrats than Republicans have cast ballots in Ohio’s 12th District special election.
In this May’s primary, more Democrats cast early ballots but Republicans made up for it on Election Day. Nearly 52 percent of the ballots cast in May were Republican ballots. And there is no guarantee in this race that voters will cast ballots for their party’s candidates.