Democratic House candidate Danny O’Connor is hoping he can win over enough centrist Ohio Republicans aligned with that state’s governor, John Kasich, to beat his GOP rival in next month’s special election.
The Cook Political Report rates the suburban district a toss-up given GOP Rep. Pat TiberiPatrick (Pat) Joseph TiberiOhio Democrat Danny O'Connor won't seek Portman's Senate seat The Hill's Morning Report - Biden argues for legislative patience, urgent action amid crisis Ohio New Members 2019 MORE’s retirement.
Republican candidate Troy Balderson has led all public polling in the reliably red district. That, plus Tiberi’s past dominance, gives Republicans optimism that they’ll be able to avoid an embarrassing loss just three months before the November midterm elections.
But O’Connor and Democrats believe they have a chance at winning if they can sway moderates like they did in Rep. Conor Lamb’s (D) special election victory in Pennsylvania earlier this year.
And in this district, they think that path goes right through Republicans who agree with Kasich’s repeated criticisms of President TrumpDonald TrumpJudge rules Alaska governor unlawfully fired lawyer who criticized Trump Giuliani led fake electors plot: CNN Giuliani associate sentenced to a year in prison in campaign finance case MORE.
“Kasich is popular among Republicans in Ohio who are available to us to win. The Kasich voter who is a lifelong Republican, but is kind of alienated by Trump and likes that Kasich is more pragmatic, is the lane of voters we want,” said one Democratic strategist working on the race.
“We have a very clear strategy that’s backed up by the data and the demographics here — we don’t need to win a huge chunk of Republicans, we need to win our share. And they are going to come from Kasich Republicans who are disenchanted with Trump,” the strategist said.
O’Connor made his pitch to Kasich voters in a television ad that launched last week. The spot includes a woman who voted for both Kasich and Trump but is backing O’Connor.
“I voted for Trump because I didn’t like the way things were going in Washington, and now I’m supporting Danny O’Connor,” the woman says in the ad.
“John Kasich and Danny O’Connor both don’t worry about the labels of Democrat, Republican. They are going to get things done,” she says.
The strategy is born from the dynamics in the district as well as within the state’s Republican Party.
Tiberi has regularly defeated his Democratic opponents with twice their votes since redistricting in 2011 shifted the lines in his favor. And Trump won the district by 11 points in 2016.
But Ohio’s 12th Congressional District is the most affluent and well-educated in the state, home to the kinds of voters Democrats have over-performed with in recent special elections.
Democrats are also hopeful that the state GOP’s burgeoning civil war will help them, especially in Kasich’s home district, where he remains popular.
The bad blood between Trump and Kasich allies runs deep in Ohio. The governor has become one of the most visible Trump critics in the GOP and Trump allies won a battle for control of the state party. Recent primaries have also turned into referendums on GOP support for Trump.
Trump’s favorability in the district fluctuates — a June poll by JMC Analytics found Trump’s net approval rating at 14 percent, while a Monmouth University poll from just days earlier found it at a net of 1 percent.
O’Connor’s aim to appeal to the center, by using Kasich as a proxy, draws some similarities to Lamb’s strategy.
Both Democrats targeted moderate voters with their messaging, took early stands to announce they wouldn’t support House Minority Leader Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Dems look to repackage BBB into salvageable bill The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Biden clarifies his remarks on Russia Democrats hope to salvage Biden's agenda on Manchin's terms MORE (D-Calif.) and highlighted issues where they’d be willing to work with Trump.
Their opponents focused more on turning out their base in districts with a Republican advantage. Balderson referred to himself as a “Trump guy” during a recent meeting with The Columbus Dispatch newspaper, not naming an issue on which he disagrees with Trump.
In the eyes of many Republicans, Balderson’s comparisons to Rick Saccone — the Pennsylvania Republican and Trump loyalist who lost to Lamb — end there.
Balderson led the GOP primary field in fundraising, and Republicans see him as the real deal. In an interview with The Hill, Tiberi said Balderson will be an “independent guy” who will “appeal to suburban and urban voters.”
That’s why Tiberi and other Republicans aren’t buying O’Connor’s strategy, but welcome it if it exposes him as inauthentic.
O'Connor has been vocally supportive of the governor's push to expand Medicaid in the state, but was also listed hosting a fundraiser for the governor's Democratic opponent in 2014.
“There’s a little bit of a ‘sheep in wolf’s clothing’ to this, and when you start to lose authenticity you lose the respect of the voters,” said one Republican strategist who advised another GOP candidate during the primary. “It feels too-cute-by-half to me. And too-cute-by-half usually loses.”
Tiberi, who served nine terms representing the area before his resignation earlier this year, agreed. He pointed to the victory by the progressive Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez over longtime Democratic Rep. Joseph Crowley in the recent New York primaries as proof that Democrats aren’t interested in backing moderates in the age of the “resistance.”
“There’s a huge split in the [Democratic] Party and there are a lot of people gnashing their teeth that Danny O’Connor is sucking up to John Kasich,” Tiberi told The Hill. “And some even view it as sucking up to Donald Trump because this lady [in the ad] is a Donald Trump voter.”
Isaac Baker, a Democratic strategist working with O’Connor’s campaign who also worked with Lamb’s, told The Hill that he believes their success in Pennsylvania refutes that point.
“More than anything driving Democratic energy on the left is the urge to win back some sort of power and put a check on Trump,” he said. “The Lamb race cemented for us the confidence that in the right district, the energy is going to be there.”
With less than a month to go before the Aug. 7 election, the race is heating up. The Congressional Leadership Foundation, the GOP-aligned super PAC that’s played a major role in past special elections, has spent about $1 million on ads tarring O’Connor as “Dishonest Danny” and boosting Balderson’s legislative record.
And both House Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanHow Kevin McCarthy sold his soul to Donald Trump On The Trail: Retirements offer window into House Democratic mood Stopping the next insurrection MORE (R-Wis.) and Vice President Pence have fundraised for the GOP candidate.
O’Connor, like most Democratic special election candidates this cycle, is doing things mostly on his own. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee hasn’t spent on his behalf and Democratic outside groups are keeping their distance to give him room to break from the national party’s brand. Still, he’s been able to hold his own on the airwaves.
A source familiar with media buys confirmed to The Hill that O’Connor and the combined GOP effort, including the Congressional Leadership Fund, the National Republican Congressional Committee and the Balderson campaign, have about the same amount of ad points spent and reserved so far.
And while the race may have important symbolic merit, it’s also an appetizer for November, when the two candidates square off again in a normal general election.
“There’s no road map for a special. If this was just the November election, we wouldn’t be talking,” Tiberi told The Hill. “You just have to get your people out and that’s the challenge of the special — you’ve got to run through the tape.”