Politics

Republican Balderson Leads in Too-Close-To-Call Ohio Special Election

One GOP super PAC spent more than $3.3 million to hold longtime GOP seat

Ohio state Rep. Troy Balderson, seen here at the Licking County Hartford Fair on Monday, is leading in the special election in Ohio’s 12th District. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Republican Troy Balderson was narrowly ahead in the special election in Ohio’s 12th District on Tuesday night, but even with all precincts reporting, the race remained too close to call. 

Balderson led Democrat Danny O’Connor 50 percent to 49 percent, according to The Associated Press, which hadn’t called the race as of 11:50 p.m.

That didn’t stop Republicans from claiming victory, though. Balderson thanked his supporters Tuesday night and congratulated O’Connor on a hard-fought race, saying he looked forward to facing the Democrat again in November when the two run against each other for a full two-year term. The special election was to complete the remaining term of former GOP Rep. Pat Tiberi, who resigned in January.

“We always knew this was going to be a close race, and while we don’t know the results quite yet, I know that this campaign left it all on the field,” O’Connor said in a statement late Tuesday night.

O’Connor already began fundraising off the close result, telling supporters on Twitter the campaign was “entering what could be a long and expensive recount.”

Outside help

Balderson’s apparent victory was thanks, in part, to an all-hands-on-deck involvement from national Republican forces. The Republican National Committee, the National Republican Congressional Committee and Congressional Leadership Fund all congratulated Balderson on Tuesday night, using their statements to credit President Donald Trump (in the case of the RNC) and to deliver stern warnings to other GOP candidates who aren’t raising money (in the case of CLF).

O’Connor, the Franklin County recorder, outraised and outspent Balderson, a state senator, forcing Republican outside groups to prop up the GOP nominee much as they have in previous special elections in red districts since Trump’s election. CLF spent more than $3.3 million on the 12th District race.

“While we won tonight, this remains a very tough political environment and moving forward, we cannot expect to win tough races when our candidate is being outraised,” CLF executive director Corry Bliss said in a statement.

“Any Republican running for Congress getting vastly outraised by an opponent needs to start raising more money,” he added.

Trump had held a rally for Balderson over the weekend, a questionable decision given his unpopularity among some suburban voters, but one that may have helped shore up the GOP base in a low-turnout election. Balderson likely also benefited from the endorsement, albeit late in the game, from Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who used to hold this seat.

Addressing his supporters Tuesday night, Balderson thanked Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, Tiberi and Ohio Rep. Steve Stivers, the chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee. Who didn’t get a mention? Kasich. The governor cut an ad for CLF backing Balderson just a week before the election.

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A moral win?

Democrats celebrated the mere fact that a race in such a Republican district was too close to call and that they forced CLF and the NRCC to spend for a once safe Republican seat.

“With twice as many registered Republicans as Democrats, this district should have been a slam dunk for the GOP, and the fact that we are still counting ballots is an ominous sign for their prospects in November,” Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Ben Ray Luján said in a statement. 

Trump carried the 12th District by 11 points in 2016, and it’s long been a bastion of pro-business Republicans. Frustrated with Washington, Tiberi, a longtime moderate, gave up the seat to head a business group after winning his last re-election by 37 points.

Democrats see the closeness of the race as evidence that their message will resonate in November, especially in the nearly 80 GOP-held districts the DCCC is targeting where Trump earned a smaller percentage of the vote than he did in Ohio’s 12th.

O’Connor ran against the GOP tax overhaul, casting it as a corporate giveaway that would require cuts from Social Security and Medicare. Like an increasing number of Democratic candidates this cycle, he refused corporate PAC contributions and said he would not vote for Pelosi for party leader if he made it to the House.

Republicans mostly followed a familiar playbook here, tying O’Connor to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and arguing that he’d support tax hikes. Republicans see Balderson’s lead as a vindication of that message.

CLF intensified the Pelosi attacks after O’Connor was pushed by MSNBC host Chris Matthews about whether he’d support her in a final vote if she was the Democrats’ choice for speaker. O’Connor said he’d support whomever Democrats put forward, but his campaign later maintained that he never thought that would be Pelosi.

But that this race was so closely contested is still concerning to some Republicans, who are trying to navigate how to drive turnout among the Trump-loving GOP base, while not turning off the more educated, suburban Republicans and independents who dislike the president.

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