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GOP holds narrow lead in solidly red U.S. House seat in Ohio

| Wednesday, Aug. 8, 2018, 12:45 a.m.
Troy Balderson, Republican candidate for Ohio’s 12th Congressional District, greets a crowd of supporters during an election night party Tuesday, Aug. 7, 2018, in Newark, Ohio.
Troy Balderson, Republican candidate for Ohio’s 12th Congressional District, greets a crowd of supporters during an election night party Tuesday, Aug. 7, 2018, in Newark, Ohio.

Republicans held a narrow lead late Tuesday in the race for a solidly red U.S. House seat in Ohio, an outcome that nonetheless highlighted the vulnerability of President Trump’s governing coalition.

Several hundred votes separated Democrat Danny O’Connor, an elected county recorder, from Republican state Sen. Troy Balderson, in a district that Trump won by 11 points in 2016 and where Republicans have held control since 1983.

The too-close-to call race signaled Trump’s diminishing ability to woo voters, coming just three days after he travelled to the district to hold a rally for the Republican candidate in the hopes of motivating his supporters to the polls to counteract the growing Democratic enthusiasm in the Columbus suburbs.

The contest — prompted by the retirement of Republican Rep. Patrick Tiberi, — is the latest example of increased voter and campaign donor energy for Democrats that has haunted Republicans through special elections since Trump became president, including House races in Arizona, Pennsylvania and South Carolina.

At a watch party for Balderson, Bruno Leone, 18, a junior at Ohio State, expressed confidence but acknowledged the president’s impact on Democrats.

“My only worry is with a lot of Democrats who are against Trump — very against Trump. I’m just worried that him endorsing Troy and coming to their hometown motivated them to go out to the polls to vote against Troy,” Leone said.

Nathan Gonzales, who handicaps elections at Inside Politics, said a close race was good news for Democrats “because they don’t need to win this type of House district in order to get back to the majority. There are enough seats that are more Democratic than this one that are within reach for them to gain the 23 necessary to win the majority.”

With 99 percent of the precincts counted, Balderson held a .8 percent lead.

Under Ohio state law, a recount is automatically initiated when the vote margin between the apparent winning candidate and the next leading candidate is less than or equal to 0.5 percent of the total vote.

Four other states held elections Tuesday, including several races that also measured Trump’s ability to pick winners in Republican primaries, even when he flouted the wishes of the local party establishment. The president endorsed a longtime ally and adviser, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, in his race for governor over the Republican incumbent, Gov. Jeff Colyer.

In Michigan, Trump endorsed Attorney General Bill Schuette, who captured the GOP gubernatorial nomination. He also backed John James, a West Point graduate who prevailed over businessman Sandy Pensler for the GOP Senate nomination. That seat is held by Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow, who is favored to win reelection.

In recent months, Trump has repeatedly shown he can leverage his high approval among Republicans to swing the party’s primary contests in his favor with endorsements, having successfully chosen the winner in all 11 party contests he has been involved in since June.

That included several contests where his late endorsements, often delivered on Twitter, appeared to be a major factor in the outcome, including the primary victories of Rep. Dan Donovan, R-N.Y., Rep. Martha Roby, R-Ala., and Brian Kemp, who won the Georgia GOP nomination for governor last month.

But Trump’s record of choosing the winner in special general elections has been far less impressive, as Democrats and independent voters have demonstrated high enthusiasm for voting against his party’s candidates when they get a chance.

Trump’s divisive political approach has created a squeeze for many Republicans in general elections, campaign consultants say. They find that they have lost independent support because of Trump but still need his involvement in the race to get Republicans to the polls.

Trump endorsed Ed Gillespie when he ran for Virginia governor, Roy Moore in the Senate race in Alabama and Pennsylvania’s Rick Saccone in a House special election. They all lost.

In Tuesday’s House race in Ohio, for a district that includes some of the state’s wealthiest and most well-educated suburbs outside Columbus, Republican groups were forced to once again run a last-minute emergency drill, flooding the state with millions of dollars in advertising and voter mobilization to protect the seat.

Trump attended a rally in the district Saturday with Balderson, following separate visits to the district by his son Donald Trump Jr. and Vice President Mike Pence, as well as a late endorsement from Ohio Gov. John Kasich, a Republican.

Democratic outside groups were outspent by a margin of nearly 4-to-1, though O’Connor proved a much stronger fundraiser than Balderson, a pattern that has repeated itself across the midterm field this year. Democratic donors have flooded campaigns with small donations, and Republicans have been forced to depend on much larger checks from wealthy individuals and outside groups.

A review of television and radio spending in the Ohio race provided by a Democratic consultant showed that between May 8 and Election Day both sides were able to reach a similar number of people through paid advertising, though Democrats spent about $1 million less, since candidates are offered favorable rates when they buy spots directly through their campaigns.

O’Connor spent nearly $2.4 million on broadcast ads, according to the report, compared with just $571,834 by the Balderson campaign. The Congressional Leadership Fund, a Republican super-PAC associated with House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., spent $2.6 million, according to the report.

Though the race had yet to be called, Republicans declared victory.

“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,” the CLF said in a statement. “Any Republican running for Congress getting vastly outraised by an opponent needs to start raising more money.”

Much of that advertising focused on tying O’Conner to House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, whom he said he would not support for speaker. One spot also accused O’Connor of wanting to cut $800 million from Medicare because he opposed repealing the Affordable Care Act, which had created costs savings in the program when it initially passed.

Both Republican and Democratic consultants said before polls closed that regardless of the outcome, the contest showed the danger of the political environment for Republicans this fall.

“The Republicans have had to basically pull out all the stops to try to push Balderson over the finish line,” said Meredith Kelly, the communications director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “This strategy of the last-minute spending plus a Trump rally, plus a late Kasich endorsement, that is not a replicable strategy going into November.”

Regardless of the winner, the two men will again contest the seat in November.

In Michigan and Kansas, Democrats elevated two more women as their gubernatorial nominees. Gretchen Whitmer, the former Michigan state Senate leader, defeated several challengers, including Abdul El-Sayed, a candidate backed by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who was vying to be potentially the first Muslim nominee to run for governor. In Kansas, state Sen. Laura Kelly captured the nomination.

Democrats will have chosen eight female nominees so far this cycle for gubernatorial races, continuing a pattern that has appeared down ballot as Democratic female candidates continue to notch a historic number of victories in primaries.

In Kansas, Trump backed Kobach, who has waged several losing battles against “voter fraud” in the state, over Colyer, who replaced Sam Brownback after he joined the Trump administration.

Democrats, who have opposed Kobach on the ballot and in court, had a three-way race involving Kelly, former Wichita mayor Carl Brewer and former Environmental Protection Agency official Josh Svaty. Party leaders considered Kelly the strongest candidate, after Greg Orman, a frequent independent candidate, began criticizing her.

Both parties also have combative House primaries, in neighboring districts.

In Missouri, Republicans nominated state Attorney General Josh Hawley to run against Sen. Claire McCaskill, D, in what will likely be one of the most competitive races this fall.

Labor unions in Missouri also were closely watching the results of a ballot measure in the state to overturn a recently passed “right-to-work” law. The only public polling on the measure in July showed strong support for overturning the law.

Voters in Washington state were also poised to choose a Democratic nominee to run for the seat of retiring Rep. Dave Reichert, R. Republicans are expected to back Dino Rossi, a state senator who has run twice for governor and once for the U.S. Senate. Kim Schrier, a physician, has been endorsed by Emily’s List and most labor unions, while Jason Rittereiser, a lawyer, has argued that his rural roots would make him more electable in November.

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