Democrats surging on eve of pivotal special election
WESTERVILLE, OHIO — The entire Republican Party machinery has converged on this suburban Columbus district for a furious eleventh-hour campaign aimed at saving a conservative House seat and averting another special election disaster.
But in the final days ahead of Tuesday’s election, signs were everywhere that Democrats are surging — from recent polling to the private and public statements of many Republicans, including the GOP candidate himself. The district has been reliably red for more than three decades, but the sheer size of the Republican cavalry made clear how worried the party is about losing it.
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At a Saturday evening rally, President Donald Trump tried to juice conservative excitement for mild-mannered Republican candidate Troy Balderson while foisting a Trumpian nickname upon 31-year-old Democratic hopeful Danny O’Connor: “Danny boy.” Earlier in the week, Vice President Mike Pence made the trek, while Trump’s son Donald Trump Jr. recorded a robocall, and Gov. John Kasich endorsed Balderson in a TV ad.
The Republican National Committee has opened two offices in the district, launched a $500,000-plus get-out-the-vote effort, and dispatched one of its top officials, Bob Paduchik, who ran Trump’s 2016 Ohio campaign. And outside conservative groups, led by a super PAC aligned with House Speaker Paul Ryan, have dumped more than $3.5 million onto the TV airwaves, far outpacing Democrats.
The all-out push underscores the GOP’s trepidation about the final special election before the midterms. A loss, following startling Republican defeats in Pennsylvania and Alabama, would offer more evidence that a blue wave is on the horizon. And it would further fuel fears of what’s becoming evident: that Democrats are simply more amped up, even in areas that have long been safely Republican.
As he addressed volunteers gathered in a campaign office on Friday afternoon, Balderson, a 56-year-old state legislator, hinted at the enthusiasm deficit that was plaguing his party. A Monmouth University poll last week had him ahead of O’Connor by a single percentage point, 44 to 43.
“You all know, it’s a tight race. And everybody wants to know, why is it tight? Why is it tight?” he said. “Because this race is all about turnout.”
With Ohio Sen. Rob Portman and Paduchik at his side, Balderson told the volunteers that “there’s been some talk about us not really getting out there and not working,” though he assured them their efforts were not being overlooked.
“We know what you’re doing, we know the doors you’re hitting, we know the phone calls you’re making,” he said.
Republicans contend that their mobilization headaches are being compounded by the unusual timing of the race. Many voters are on vacation or going about their summers and unaware of the special election.
With that in mind, White House officials, who have been watching the contest with growing worry, dispatched Trump to the district in the hope he can fire up conservatives who might stay home on Tuesday. The president, who advisers said was eager to jump into the special election, lavished praise on Balderson while also offering up a greatest-hits like collection of attacks on the media, political rivals and the Russia investigation.
“I think what it does, perhaps most importantly, is it raises the profile of the race,” said Portman, who bemoaned the timing of the August election. “If you were to walk over to the Kroger here and ask people, ‘Is there a race? You know, is there a congressional race going on?’ Ninety percent of them would say, ‘What are you talking about?’”
The event was also designed to unify Republicans around Balderson, who narrowly survived a bruising primary fight against Melanie Leneghan, a Trump-aligned local official. Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, a conservative House Freedom Caucus member and Leneghan backer, was in attendance, and the rally was held in Delaware County, where Leneghan is from.
Yet the president’s fly-in carried considerable risk. Like dozens of other suburban districts around the country, Ohio’s 12th is filled with higher-income and upper-educated voters who have soured on the president, and some party officials are worried that the boisterous rally could turn those voters away from Balderson. The Monmouth poll showed Trump’s approval rating in the district at just 46 percent. Trump received 52 percent of the vote in the district in 2016.
Those worries intensified on Saturday morning when, just hours before the rally, Trump took to Twitter to attack NBA legend LeBron James, an Ohio favorite son who recently opened a public school in Akron for at-risk youth.