Trump to visit Ohio in waning days of nail-biter House election

Trump to visit Ohio in waning days of nail-biter House election
© The Hill photo illustration

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 is set to visit Ohio on Saturday as Republicans scramble to hang onto a reliably red seat in a must-win special House election next week, the final one before November's midterms.

Polls show a dead-even race between Republican Troy Balderson and Democrat Danny O’Connor in a district that Trump won by 11 points in 2016. The seat, previously held by retired 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 (R), has been held by Republicans since 1980.

But Democrats smell a win in the special election on Tuesday, one, they believe, will portend a blue wave to come in the November midterms. Democrats need to flip 23 seats, many in suburban districts that resemble Ohio's 12th District, to take back the House.

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While many Republicans still believe state Sen. Balderson will eke out a win, they’ve been forced to spend millions defending the seat in a difficult political environment. Polls nationwide have shown Trump’s popularity in only the mid-40s, while voters have expressed a desire for a check on the White House ahead of the midterms.

Trump is now personally stepping into the fray. He will address a rally in the Columbus suburbs on Saturday evening with one primary goal: gin up excitement among the Republican base, where he remains widely popular, and match the strong enthusiasm by Democrats.

“There’s no question about a blue wave. That’s why I’m worried. It will give Democrats an incredible amount of energy, set the narrative that we’re dead men walking toward November,” a national Republican consultant following the race told The Hill.

Democrats have performed well in special elections this cycle, particularly in states and districts that haven’t gone blue in decades. That has included an Alabama special Senate election late last year where Sen. Doug Jones (D) defeated Republican Roy MooreRoy Stewart MooreGAO investigating after employee featured in Project Veritas video Roy Moore dismisses Kavanaugh accusation: 'So obvious' when claims come 'just days before a very important event' DOJ looking into 'concerning' behavior by employee in Project Veritas video MORE, who faced allegations that he had pursued romantic and sexual relationships with women decades his junior, including one who was a minor at the time.

More stunningly, Rep. Conor Lamb (D) defeated Republican Rick Saccone in a March special election held in a Pennsylvania district that Trump won by 20 points.

The Pennsylvania race has raised hope among Democrats that O'Connor, the Franklin County recorder, can pull off a similar feat this time around.

Like Lamb in Pennsylvania, O’Connor is directly appealing to more moderate Republicans and has avoided making Trump a target of his campaign. Instead, he has campaigned heavily on preserving Medicare and Social Security and on local issues.

Also like Lamb, O’Connor has said he wouldn't support 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.) as Speaker, though the Democrat eventually conceded during an interview with MSNBC that he "would support whoever the Democratic Party put forward," an admission that has left him open to attack from Republicans. 

“[O’Connor] reminds a lot of people of Conor Lamb because he works hard and has a message that is not dependent on the national stuff,” said Jim Ruvolo, former Ohio Democratic Party chairman. “He’s not just bashing Trump. He can’t do it in that district and win, and he knows that.”

Republicans, though, warn about making excessive comparisons with the Pennsylvania race.

For one, they believe Balderson is a much stronger candidate than Saccone, who was seen as having run a lackluster campaign in March. In addition, they say Ohio's 12th District has affluent, well-educated suburbs as well as rural pockets — the type of voters who are more reliably Republican.

But Republicans acknowledge they are facing headwinds, similar to trends nationwide that favor Democrats. Those include a Republican president whose popularity is underwater. A Monmouth University survey showed Trump with a 46 percent approval in the district, only slightly higher than the national average, while 49 percent disapprove.

Democrats have also been careful to pick candidates who fit the district — and ones who have been able to outraise and outspend their opponents. O’Connor outraised Balderson, more than $1.4 million to $1.2 million. And O’Connor has spent about $260,000 more.

O’Connor has also had help. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) has spent about $340,000 in the race, and groups like Progressive Turnout Project, End Citizens United, House Majority PAC and Priorities USA have also gotten involved.

The unfavorable dynamics have forced Republicans to spend big in the race. The Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC with ties to Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanGOP super PAC drops .5 million on Nevada ad campaign Blue wave poses governing risks for Dems Dems seek to rebuild blue wall in Rust Belt contests MORE (R-Wis.), spent at least $2.6 million on advertising and field operations. The group said it has a field office with 50 paid staffers and will have made more than 500,000 voter contacts by Tuesday.

The Republican National Committee has also spent about $240,000 on ads, phone banking and canvassing efforts, while the National Republican Congressional Committee has spent more than $600,000.

The spending comes as the race has tightened considerably. Polling from Monmouth University shows the race in a dead heat, with Balderson leading O’Connor 44 percent to 43 percent. 

Such a close margin has led both parties to believe they must turn out their bases to win the critical race given the historically low turnouts in special elections.

“Can Republicans hold their base and can Democrats excite theirs?” asked former Rep. Dennis Eckart (D-Ohio). “If one side of that equation falters just a little, the other side will win. It’s almost not much about the personalities and it’s very much hold your base or excite your base.”

That’s where Trump comes in. The president has already given Balderson his full-throated support in a tweeted endorsement. But he will now make his first appearance in a special election nationwide since campaigning alongside Saccone in Pennsylvania, only to see the Republican go down in defeat.

Balderson’s campaign and Republicans welcome the president’s help, which comes on the heels of Vice President Pence’s own visit.

The Republican candidate has also won a valuable endorsement from popular outgoing Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R), who represented the district from 1983 to 2001. Kasich, an outspoken Trump critic, has cut an ad where he talks about how he and Balderson share “commonsense values” and highlighted Balderson’s work in the state legislature where he worked alongside Kasich to cut taxes.

Republicans are hopeful that having support from both Trump and Kasich can solidify two divergent factions within the GOP. 

O’Connor has also attracted some Democrats to campaign for him, including former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, but so far no major national Democratic figure has come to campaign, though Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenMore Massachusetts Voters Prefer Deval Patrick for President than Elizabeth Warren Trump's trade war — firing all cannons or closing the portholes? Poll: Most Massachusetts voters don't think Warren should run for president in 2020 MORE (D-Mass.) has sent two fundraising emails.

With only days left in the election, political observers say the race remains too close to call. At the end, though, the results will either give a boost to those who see a blue wave coming, or signal to Republicans that using Trump — and turning up the base — could be key to fending off Democrats in the fall. 

“I think this special, more than any other special, will be a bellwether for what we can expect in the fall,” said a Republican strategist familiar with Ohio and the race.