A special election next month in a Republican-leaning Central Ohio congressional district is being closely watched. It’s the 12th District, a seat formerly held by Pat Tiberi and before that by Gov. John Kasich. The district has been solidly red for 40 years.
But there are signs the Democrat running to replace Tiberi has a good shot at winning. Some are even saying this race captures the pulse of Ohio voters this November.
The 12th District contains parts of Richland, Morrow, Licking and Muskingum counties. Mansfield and Zanesville are within those boundaries. But the bulk of the 12th District is in more affluent suburban areas of Columbus: Dublin, New Albany and Delaware County.
It’s tough for a Democrat to win - or even come close - in this district. Republican Troy Balderson and Democrat Danny O’Connor beat several opponents to win their primaries in May and will face off again in November. But as this special election to fill out Tiberi’s term comes closer, so does this contest.
Ohio Democratic Party Chairman David Pepper said he thinks O’Connor, the Franklin County recorder and relative political newcomer, can beat Balderson, a seasoned state senator.
“Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell or Paul Ryan’s PAC, whatever it is, is now spending hundreds or thousands of more dollars, which shows you they are scared," Pepper said. "I mean Donald Trump, tweeting out the other day -- I’m not sure that’s an endorsement Troy Balderson wants at this point -- but Donald Trump tweeted out that tweet the other day…it shows you they are scared."
"So we know we are the underdogs. We know it’s an uphill battle because it’s a tough district, but we are also seeing a lot of momentum," Pepper continued. "The polling shows that Danny has pulled within five points, if not closer. We are seeing far more energy on our side at the grass roots level.”
Pepper said Republicans are so scared that they are engaging in smear tactics and making thinly veiled threats to voters.
“You know there are voters in Delaware County who are literally receiving mailers that say, ‘We know if you voted or not. Don’t let the liberal win,’ almost like Big Brother is watching each of them as they vote so when you see them take that stuff out, you know they are worried,” he said.
The Ohio Republican Party’s Rob Secaur said these are not attempts to intimidate voters.
“I think that only shows Democrats are behind the times in tactics. This has been happening for years," Secaur said. "I’ve seen this in presidential politics, state politics here in Ohio and across the country. It’s social pressure to get folks to vote. And it’s talking about how important it is to make your voice is heard, and I don’t think there’s any problem with doing that."
Secaur said Balderson’s race is tighter than he’d like, but he cautions not to read too much into that.
“Special elections -- and especially in the year of the first midterm after a presidential -- yes, it always goes against the party that won the presidency, but I think there’s real enthusiasm on the ground for Troy as well," Secaur said. "We had a great kickoff rally for a walk this weekend. We have another one coming up this weekend, and Ohio Republicans are excited to get Troy Balderson elected to the 12th."
Pollsters predict a tight race
In recent weeks, political pollsters have moved the race from having an advantage for Balderson to being a wide open contest.
Kyle Kondik with Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball, a leading political forecasting project, is the latest to put the race into the “toss up” category.
“I think a lot of people, including myself, saw the Republican as a soft favorite in this district given that this district is significantly right of the center both in Ohio and nationally, but also it’s a competitive enough district that a Democrat could win under the right circumstances,” Kondik said.
Kondik has also moved the congressional race between incumbent Republican Steve Chabot and Democrat Aftab Pureval in Cincinnati to a toss-up. So Kondik said even if Balderson wins, if the race is tight, it could be a bad sign for Republicans in the fall.
“I think there are a lot of indicators showing the Republican House majority is in serious danger coming this November, and one of those data points is the Democratic overperformance in Republican-leaning special elections,” he said.
More Democrats have cast ballots...so far
Early vote totals so far show more Democrats than Republicans have cast ballots at this point. In this May’s primary, more Democrats cast early ballots, but Republicans made up for it on Election Day. Nearly 52 percent of the ballots cast in May were Republican ballots. And there is no guarantee in this race that voters will cast ballots for their party’s candidates.