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Democrat Puts Up A Challenge In Longtime GOP Ohio District

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

There's a special election happening in Ohio next week which could shift the balance of power in one district. The GOP has held Ohio's 12th Congressional District for more than 30 years. But around the country, Democrats have exceeded expectations in special elections, even flipping seats. And a Democrat is putting up a challenge in this race. Adora Namigadde of member station WOSU reports.

ADORA NAMIGADDE, BYLINE: On a recent Saturday morning, Republican voters were packed into a hotel conference room outside of Columbus to listen to 12th District Republican candidate Troy Balderson speak.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TROY BALDERSON: I got to get you to the polls. You have to get your friends to the polls August 7. Every minute of every day. August 7. August 7. August 7 - has to happen. We have got to win this race.

NAMIGADDE: This wasn't an election Republicans were expecting. The area's member of Congress, Pat Tiberi, abruptly stepped down in January out of frustration with the political climate. In these affluent suburbs of Columbus, Republicans had wanted to run on tax cuts and a strong economy. Instead, Balderson's ads focus on immigration and social issues

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD, "TROY BALDERSON: CONSERVATIVE FOR CONGRESS")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: In Congress, Balderson will defend our Christian values and support American jobs by building Trump's wall, deporting illegals...

NAMIGADDE: That Trump-style message resonates with Republican voters like Sue Lorenz, a health care worker.

SUE LORENZ: It's very important to find a replacement for Tiberi who will support Trump's agenda and further conservative values.

NAMIGADDE: Balderson and his allies charge that a vote for Democratic candidate Danny O'Connor is a vote to make Nancy Pelosi speaker of the House. O'Connor says he doesn't plan to back Pelosi and says Republicans are trying to distract voters.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DANNY O'CONNOR: I've never once had a voter ask me who I'm to vote for for speaker. People just don't care. People care about kitchen-table issues. They care about who's going to fight for their access to earn benefits like Social Security and Medicare.

NAMIGADDE: Democrats have outperformed in terms of turnout in almost every special congressional election since 2016. They're hoping to flip one last seat before November in a district that has not been represented by Democrats since the Reagan years. It's been a boost for local Democrats like Phyllis Elmo, one of O'Connor's volunteers.

PHYLLIS ELMO: I think they're excited because he's young, and he brings an energy that we haven't seen. And he'll talk to people.

NAMIGADDE: Matt Borges is a former chairman of the Ohio Republican Party. He says Republicans are on the alert for an upset.

MATT BORGES: Oh, we all are aware of the fact that there is increased Democratic enthusiasm and energy on their side in this political year.

NAMIGADDE: Whoever wins this race will only serve until the end of the year. In November, Balderson and O'Connor will face each other in a rematch for a full term.

For NPR News, I'm Adora Namigadde in Columbus. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.