Updated 20:29 p.m. | President Donald Trump dove headfirst into a House special election Saturday evening, aiming to give Ohio Republican Troy Balderson a final push three days before Election Day.
The race in the suddenly competitive 12th District between the state lawmaker and Franklin County Recorder Danny O’Connor, polls say, is now essentially tied. Trump and Republican leaders are eager to keep the seat in GOP hands after the retirement of former Republican Rep. Pat Tiberi earlier this year.
That the president interrupted his 11-day working vacation at his New Jersey golf resort to take take his unique bully pulpit to the district shows just how alarmed top Republicans are about the erosion of Balderson’s once-healthy lead. Voters in the district head to the polls Tuesday, and Trump urged rally attendees to help drive up Republican turnout.
The special election’s outcome, in a reliably GOP district in a state Trump won in 2016, is an early test of his influence with voters — and whether there is significant concern about his performance and policies.
“We’re going to have a tremendous victory for Troy,” Trump said Saturday, adding, “he’s the one I wanted to win” a GOP primary there in May over Melanie Leneghan, who was backed by party hard-liners. The president claimed there was a “false report that I was supporting somebody else.”
“He’s my first choice,” Trump said of the state senator. “He’s really smart. He never stops working. … He’s going to hopefully be here for a long time.”
The president, as he often does at rallies where one GOP candidate is the focus, invited Balderson onstage to address the crowd from behind the podium with the seal of the president.
The candidate told the audience, “I need your vote on Aug. 7 so I can go to Congress and represent you and fight alongside this good man, this great man, President Trump to make America great again,” borrowing Trump’s 2016 campaign slogan. He also touted the health of the economy and made a direct plea to the districts senior citizen voters, saying he and Trump will protect Social Security and Medicare.
He charged O’Connor would “fight against the policies that are turning our country around.”
Minutes earlier, the ever-contrarian president said pundits’ predictions that Democrats will make big gains in November’s midterm elections will turn out to be wrong.
“They’re talking about this blue wave,” Trump said. “I don’t think so.” And he again told an audience of supporters in the high school gym that Rep. Maxine Waters of California is now “leading the charge” for Democrats in Washington. He said he expects a “red wave” because the other party wants to raise taxes.
Trump, as he often does at campaign events, wasted no time celebrating his 2016 upset win and ticking off a list of things he has done since taking office and his view of the state of the country. “The economy is booming,” he said. “This is where the action is.”
“What a victory,” Trump said to lead off his remarks. He then dinged the media for some commentators saying he might lose the state to Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
He touted his administration’s “love” for law enforcement entities like the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency — which prompted the crowd to chant “build that wall.”
He later also falsely stated that Sen. Dianne Feinstein is “leading” the Senate’s Russia election meddling probe, and dinged her over reports that she once employed a Chinese spy as a driver. The California Democrat is a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, which is conducting that investigation, but she is no longer its vice chairman — a position now held by Virginia’s Mark Warner.
Trump again issued a half-acknowledgement that Russia meddled in the 2016 U.S. election and is continuing efforts to upend the American political system — but he again said other players were also doing the same thing.
“We’ve got to stop meddling, we’ve got to stop everybody from attacking us,” he said. “But there are a lot. Russia’s there, China’s there – hey, we’re doing well with North Korea — but they’re probably there. We’ve got to stop everybody.”
He also lashed out at “the elite,” saying those at the rallies are “smarter” and harder-working than those in the so-called upper crust. “They’re more elite than me? I have better everything than they have, including this,” he said, referring either to the presidency or the campaign event — or both. “And I became president and they didn’t. … And it’s driving them crazy.”
Trump painted O’Connor as likely to be told what to do and how to vote by Democratic leaders such as House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. But O’Connor has said he will not support her expected bid for speaker or minority leader if he wins next week. Once onstage, Balderson also warned O’Connor would vote for Pelosi.
“Pelosi controls Danny O’Connor,” Trump said. “Whoever the hell that is.”
Watch: Trump’s Tweets, Shutdown Threats Muddy the Waters Less Than 100 Days From Midterms
Show of force
The rally was something of a show of GOP force, trying to demonstrate to voters that Balderson has the support of the party’s top figures. Television cameras spotted Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, the founding chairman of the hard-line conservative House Freedom Caucus and a candidate to lead the party’s GOP caucus in the next Congress, shaking hands with rallygoers before Trump finally made his away onstage after an unexplained half-hour delay.
Jordan’s presence at the rally was likely more about Trump than Balderson. The Freedom Caucus co-founder, who represents the neighboring 4th District, had endorsed Leneghan, Balderson’s primary opponent, but has since helped raise money for the GOP nominee.
Jordan recently announced his plans to run for speaker in a letter to House Republicans that heavily cited Trump. In the opening paragraph of his appeal, Jordan noted that in November 2016 voters rejected the status quo by electing an “out-of-the-box Republican,” adding, “So far, President Trump has made them proud.”
But the GOP congressional majorities have not, Jordan argued, trying to paint his himself as a speaker who would actually help Trump fulfill Republicans’ promises to voters.
Reporters at the rally tweeted that the audience chanted “Speaker of the House!” as Jordan talked to voters.
Trump did not endorse Jordan’s bid for leader at the rally in Ohio, but he did give a double thumbs up to the crowd as they chanted “Speaker of the House!” when he invited the congressman onstage to say a few words.
Jordan’s attempt to be the pro-Trump candidate for speaker could complicate House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s bid if the president opts not to endorse either of them. Trump is close with both Jordan and McCarthy, but arguably closer with the California Republican, whom he calls “My Kevin.” But Trump also has a very strong relationship with Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows, who is backing Jordan.
The president appeared on Ohio soil less than 24 hours after lashing out at LeBron James, the Ohio native NBA star who returned to the Cleveland Cavaliers and delivered a championship. Trump was responding to critical comments James made in an interview Friday night with CNN host Don Lemon.
Trump wrote late Friday night that Lemon made the basketballer “look smart, which isn’t easy to do.”
Lebron James was just interviewed by the dumbest man on television, Don Lemon. He made Lebron look smart, which isn’t easy to do. I like Mike!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 4, 2018
A Monmouth University poll released Wednesday showed Balderson narrowly leading O’Connor 46 percent to 45 percent under a standard midterm model. That’s a significant change from just a month ago, when Balderson had a 9-point lead.
Republican officials and outside groups have gone into all-hands-on-deck mode to try and shove Balderson over the finish line first. Gov. John Kasich — who once held the 12th District seat — came off the sidelines to endorse the GOP nominee, even cutting an ad for the Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC with ties to House GOP leadership.
Lindsey McPherson and Simone Pathé contributed to this report.