Close Ohio special election strikes fear in GOP for midterms

It's the final test for the Trump administration before the all-important midterms determine which party will control Congress and it should be an easy win for conservatives. So why are Republicans scrambling to keep a Trump stronghold in Ohio? CNN's Ryan Nobles explains.

Posted: Aug 8, 2018 2:26 PM
Updated: Aug 8, 2018 2:53 PM

Tuesday night's apparent narrow Republican victory in Ohio keeps a seat red but offers warning signs for the party in power. The Republican National Committee showed real ground game competence even as it looks at a landscape that favors Democratic control of the US House. Moral victories for Democrats don't make majorities, but there are enough seats in play for them to win control if House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi doesn't drag her candidates down.

My takeaways from Tuesday night:

A win is a win. Holding the 12th Congressional District in Ohio offers temporary relief for Republicans against a deluge of gloom-and-doom stories about their prospects in the midterms. (Losing would have severely dried up fundraising and caused mass panic.) As they did in Georgia's 6th Congressional District special election last year, Democratic donors poured money into Danny O'Connor's campaign, only to be disappointed on election night. Democrats did better here than they usually do, but suburban Delaware County, which delivered 54% of the vote to Republican Troy Balderson after giving Trump 54.5% in 2016, showed there are limits to how far to the left middle-class voters are willing to swing. Why?

Pelosi is a real problem for Democrats. During the campaign, O'Connor, in a torturous interview with Chris Matthews on MSNBC, admitted he would vote for whomever the Democratic nominee for House speaker is come January. Trouble is, as Matthews made clear, that person is going to be Pelosi. O'Connor's admission was weaponized by Republicans, who know Pelosi is toxic among right-of-center voters and highly motivating for lazy Republicans who sometimes miss off-year elections. Pelosi will continue to hurt Democratic candidates who are trying to convince moderate suburban voters to come their way. Pelosi ought to appear in more Republican ads than any other human this fall.

President Donald Trump can fairly take credit for helping Balderson win. During his victory speech, Balderson thanked Trump and Vice President Mike Pence for their support. Not mentioned: Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who also endorsed Balderson but caused him late trouble by claiming on television that the candidate didn't really want Trump to campaign for him. Both Trump and Pence held rallies and, according to Republicans strategists involved in the campaign, "absolutely juiced" GOP turnout.

According to people familiar with the campaign's internal polling, Balderson, partly because of a statement he made regarding Social Security and Medicare, was in a "free-fall" with two weeks to go. Then Pence and Trump showed up to stabilize the race as the RNC, raising record sums because of the President's engagement, provided ground game resources that delivered more than 1 million volunteer voter contacts.

Democrats remain favorites to win the House in November. Democrats were much closer than the numbers and history indicate they should have been in Ohio. According to expert forecaster Dave Wasserman, there are 68 Republican-held seats that, on paper, are less Republican than Ohio's 12th District. Democrats need to flip just 23 seats to take over; there are 25 Republican-held districts in which Hillary Clinton bested Trump in 2016. Balderson was badly outspent candidate-to-candidate by O'Connor, requiring a massive intervention from outside Republican groups. There isn't enough outside money to protect all 56 Republican incumbents who have been outraised by Democratic challengers; some Republican lawmakers who fail to put up their umbrella will get washed away in the storm.

The Senate map still favors Republicans. Results from suburban Delaware County show Republican Balderson winning roughly the same percentage of the vote that Trump won in 2016, even as O'Connor did better than Clinton (45.8% to Clinton's 38.7%). Republican strategist Brad Todd interprets this result as a sign Republicans remain strong favorites to hold their slim Senate majority, tweeting, "... (I)f Senate R challengers run as well as Balderson did in suburban places like Delaware County...they'll be just fine." Holding the Senate is crucial for Trump, as he can spend two years confirming judges even as a House Democratic majority tortures him with investigations and grinds his legislative agenda to a halt.

Social Security and Medicare still matter. The American economy is booming, but voters are still worried about retirement. Supporting an increase in the eligibility age for Social Security and Medicare nearly sank Balderson, and some congressional race polling indicates that preserving the safety net programs remains important to older Trump supporters. Trump, time and again as a candidate, promised he would save Social Security and Medicare and even attacked Republicans who had proposed adjustments to the programs. Republican candidates should learn a lesson here and make clear they will do everything they can to ensure the safety net remains solvent and that benefits will not be cut for voters over 50.

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