Dems look to Ohio for another election upset

Democrats are hoping a special election this summer in Ohio will become the latest in a string of upset wins ahead of the midterms.

While Democrats admit they’re the underdogs in Ohio’s 12th District — left open by GOP Rep. Pat TiberiPatrick (Pat) Joseph TiberiAP: Balderson wins hotly contested Ohio special election House Dems to invest in South Carolina race Ohio Dem candidate knocks Trump: He doesn’t know what he’s talking about MORE’s surprise resignation in January — there’s optimism the party can mount another strong effort to flip a GOP House seat.

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The district is the most affluent and highest-educated in the state, home to the same kind of suburban voters who have powered huge Democratic gains in other red districts since President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump rallies in Nevada amid Supreme Court flurry: 'We're gonna get Brett' Trump: 'Good news' that Obama is campaigning again Trump boosts Heller, hammers 'Wacky Jacky' opponent in Nevada MORE took office.

“The fact that we are even having the conversation about this district is a story,” said David Pepper, the Ohio Democratic Party chairman.

Pepper cited Democrat Conor Lamb’s apparent victory in a special House election last week in a Pennsylvania district Trump carried by 20 points in 2016.

“Conor Lamb’s lesson is that we need to compete everywhere and we can compete everywhere,” Pepper said. “That doesn’t guarantee anything, but the lesson is: the map is not a limitation.”

The Ohio district encompasses the northeast suburbs of Columbus, as well as more rural areas to the east. 

That’s a demographic composition that boosts Democratic hopes that the race will be the latest where Democrats outperform Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonTrump rallies in Nevada amid Supreme Court flurry: 'We're gonna get Brett' Trump: 'Good news' that Obama is campaigning again Trump boosts Heller, hammers 'Wacky Jacky' opponent in Nevada MORE’s 2016 showing.

Trump won the district by 11 points in 2016, a closer margin than the district Lamb won. On the surface, the district looks like an attractive target — albeit a distant one — for Democrats.

But Kyle Kondik, a University of Virginia elections analyst, believes it’s more complicated.

“Pennsylvania’s 18th was in Appalachia, was ancestrally Democratic. It had a Democratic voter registration advantage … Ohio 12 is historically bedrock Republican territory,” Kondik said.

“This is the kind of district that Republicans should hold. But Republicans should have held Pennsylvania’s 18th, too.”  

Tiberi left the seat in January, in what was seen as the latest sign of frustration among moderate House Republicans. Now nearly two dozen candidates are scrapping for a chance to replace him.  Twenty-two candidates filed with the Federal Election Commission to run for the seat.

The special primary will be held on the same day — May 8 — as the regular congressional primaries. That means there will be two primaries for the same district on the ballot: one to run in the Aug. 7 special election and fill out the remainder of Tiberi’s term through 2018, and another to run in the November general election for a two-year term starting in January.

That throws another measure of uncertainty into the race. It’s possible the two candidates could split the Democratic or Republican nominations, further complicating the field.

Seven Democrats have filed to run for the seat, with former Franklin County Sheriff Zach Scott and Franklin County Recorder Danny O’Connor emerging as early front-runners.

The two men are on different sides of the party establishment in Franklin County. Scott ruffled feathers in the county Democratic Party during his tough but ultimately unsuccessful 2015 bid for mayor of Columbus in 2015, while the county Democratic Party has backed O’Connor.

In an interview with The Hill, Scott argued the rest of the field is too far to his left to win a general election. He also said Democrats should focus primarily on economic issues, like jobs and protecting Social Security and Medicare.

“I would not call myself a liberal, I would say I’m more of a moderate,” he said.

“If Democrats — the ones that are out there — want to focus on social issues only, Democrats will go extinct,” he added.

He also pointed to his labor background, since unions played a key role in Lamb’s win.

O’Connor, who has the endorsement of high-profile Ohio Democrats like Columbus-area Rep. Joyce BeattyJoyce Birdson BeattyBeware the ides of the African American woman The Hill's Morning Report — Trump picks new fight with law enforcement, intelligence community Lots of love: Charity tennis match features lawmakers teaming up across the aisle MORE and Rep. Tim RyanTimothy (Tim) John Ryan11 Dems float anti-Pelosi leadership plan: reports Pelosi: I’m here as long as Trump is here Ohio Dem: 'I'm not necessarily some soft yoga guy' MORE, has views to the left of Scott’s.

Describing himself as a pragmatist, O’Connor pitched a similar focus on kitchen-table issues but said he has no problems being open about his support for issues like abortion rights and marriage equality.

“The issues a Republican family cares about are what a Democratic family cares about, too,” he told The Hill.

“It’s not like this Sophie’s Choice. It’s not like you can only focus on that and ignore everything else. You can focus on being pro-jobs, pro-wages and on making sure people have a shot at a good retirement, and also be for equality.”

Both candidates said they want new leadership in Congress and would not vote for House Minority Leader Nancy PelosiNancy Patricia D'Alesandro PelosiTrump boosts Heller, hammers 'Wacky Jacky' opponent in Nevada Lawmakers consider easing costs on drug companies as part of opioids deal New grounds for impeachment? House Dem says Trump deserves it for making society worse MORE (D-Calif.) for leadership if they win, a position Lamb embraced in Pennsylvania that helped him neutralize Republican attacks aimed at tying him to Pelosi.

But Republicans hope that enthusiastic Democratic grass roots will push the primary to the left, forcing Democrats to nominate a candidate who won’t be able to win in the general election.

The Republican field is even more crowded, with four candidates taking the early headlines — state Sens. Troy Balderson and Kevin Bacon, Delaware County Prosecutor Carol O’Brien and Liberty County Trustee Melanie Leneghan.

Balderson has led the early fundraising race, a factor his consultant, Brad Shattuck, told The Hill will be an advantage as Republicans look to avoid the mistakes the party made in Pennsylvania. There, the GOP candidate failed to keep up with Lamb in fundraising and organization.

Balderson comes from the eastern part of the district, which doesn’t include as many voters. But Shattuck believes that will be a strength that allows Balderson to play to a larger field of voters.

Bacon has represented the Franklin County area in the state legislature since 2007, and has been endorsed by the county GOP. His campaign is confident that his history in one of the population centers in the district, as well as a career of campaign advertising in the district, will help him in the primary.

O’Brien has the backing of her party’s organization in Delaware County, and has represented the county, the largest part of the congressional district, as prosecutor since 2011. O’Brien has pitched herself as a pragmatist who brings a unique background of law enforcement to the race. 

Leneghan, the Liberty County trustee, is seen by most as a wild-card candidate. She’s staked out a more conservative lane than other Republicans and has won the backing of Rep. Jim JordanJames (Jim) Daniel JordanHillicon Valley: Trump cyber strategy lets US go on offense | AT&T urges court to let Time Warner merger stand | Conservatives want wife of DOJ official to testify | Facebook, nonprofits team up to fight fake news | DC camera hacker pleads guilty FBI memos detail ‘partisan axes,’ secret conflicts behind the Russia election meddling assessment Republicans threaten to subpoena Nellie Ohr MORE (R-Ohio), a founding member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus. It’s unclear whether Leneghan can gain traction against the far better-known candidates.

Republicans still believe the GOP has the upper hand in the general election. O’Brien told The Hill that she’s skeptical the anti-Trump message will have “as much sway up here,” arguing voters will look favorably on the GOP’s tax-reform plan. 

But Republicans admit that a Democratic upset could send an important message ahead of the midterms.

“If Democrats win this district, they’ll win the House,” said Ohio GOP strategist Mark Weaver, who works with Bacon.

He added that he doesn’t “think that’s going to happen,” but that if Democrats keep winning districts that election analysts have determined vote much more Republican than the nation as a whole, they could very well take back control of the House.