President TrumpDonald John TrumpSenate advances public lands bill in late-night vote Warren, Democrats urge Trump to back down from veto threat over changing Confederate-named bases Esper orders ‘After Action Review’ of National Guard’s role in protests MORE and Republican state Sen. Troy Balderson declared victory in a hotly contested House special election in Ohio on Tuesday, as the GOP candidate held on to a razor-thin lead in a race that remained too close to call.
Balderson was leading Franklin County Recorder Danny O’Connor on Tuesday by 50.2 percent to 49.3 percent, with 100 percent of the precincts reporting. But at least 3,367 provisional ballots were yet to be counted, making the outcome unknown, potentially for days.
Under Ohio election law, any margin between the two candidates of less than half a percentage point would trigger an automatic recount. O’Connor refused to concede in a speech to supporters, calling the outcome a “tied ballgame.”
Even if Balderson prevails, a victory in the seat in the Columbus suburbs previously held by Rep. Pat TiberiPatrick (Pat) Joseph TiberiOhio New Members 2019 Many authors of GOP tax law will not be returning to Congress GOP Rep. Balderson holds onto seat in Ohio MORE (R), who retired to head a business association, may not last long. The winner will get to serve out the rest of Tiberi’s team until November, but Balderson, 56, will once again have to face 31-year-old O’Connor in the fall, this time for a full, two-year term.
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The close race is likely to give Democrats a shot in the arm with less than 100 days left before the midterms, as the party looks to flip the 23 seats they will need to regain the House.
The district has been comfortably in Republican hands for nearly four decades and had been expected to remain so, especially after Trump won it by 11 points in 2016.
Instead, the race became an unexpected nail biter in the last few weeks, raising concerns among Republicans that they would face a second major defeat in a swing state after Conor Lamb (D) beat state Sen. Rick Saccone (R) in a Pennsylvania special election in March.
Republicans were forced to spend millions to defend the Ohio seat, and Trump made a last-minute campaign visit on Saturday to energize the Republican base as he sought to counter the strong enthusiasm seen on the Democratic side.
“With twice as many registered Republicans as Democrats, this district should have been a slam dunk for the GOP, and the fact that we are still counting ballots is an ominous sign for their prospects in November,” Rep. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said in a statement.
But Trump on Tuesday claimed victory even as the race had yet to be called.
“When I decided to go to Ohio for Troy Balderson, he was down in early voting 64 to 36. That was not good,” Trump tweeted late Tuesday night. “After my speech on Saturday night, there was a big turn for the better. Now Troy wins a great victory during a very tough time of the year for voting. He will win BIG in Nov.”
But how much of an impact Trump ended up having remained unclear. Just like in Pennsylvania, the race became seen as a referendum on the president, whose favorability rating has been stuck in the low- to mid-40s nationally, raising concerns his party will be defeated by a blue wave come November.
Polls have shown Trump especially struggling with the types of suburban, moderate voters found in Ohio’s 12th District — the types of voters Republicans will need to retain the House.
Balderson had sought to expand his appeal by also actively promoting his endorsement from popular Gov. John Kasich (R), an outspoken Trump critic who represented the district from 1983 to 2001.
Republicans also sought to portray O’Connor as walking in lockstep with House Minority Leader Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiTrump on collision course with Congress over bases with Confederate names Black lawmakers unveil bill to remove Confederate statues from Capitol Pelosi: Georgia primary ‘disgrace’ could preview an election debacle in November MORE (D-Calif.), even as he said he would not support her, and capitalized on an MSNBC interview where O’Connor eventually conceded that he would back whoever the Democrats propose as leader, including potentially Pelosi.
But by keeping the race so close, Democrats have once again shown they can compete in key GOP-leaning suburban districts, often by recruiting more ideologically diverse candidates that better fit the key swing states and districts.
There are 45 other GOP-held seats where Trump won by a smaller margin than in Tiberi’s old district, giving Democrats more than enough seats to target in their quest to regain a House they lost in the 2010 Republican wave. Of those districts, eight are open-seat races where a GOP incumbent is retiring.
O’Connor, who heads a low-key office in charge of managing property records, made a strong effort to appeal to moderate voters, especially women and those with more education. The Ohio Democrat also veered away from criticizing Trump and even ran an ad saying he’d be willing to work with the president and congressional Republicans on infrastructure.
And the young Democrat worked hard to win over supporters of Kasich, despite the governor’s public support of Balderson.
The close race is bound to continue raising questions of how actively the president should campaign in suburban districts in the fall.
The president has shown he is eager to campaign, saying he would like to hit the trail “six or seven days” in the final two months before the midterms, and going as far as predicting during his Ohio rally on Sunday that Republicans could ride a “red wave” in the fall.
On Tuesday night, Balderson sought to promote his ties Trump, borrowing a theme from the president’s successful campaign when declaring victory.
“It’s time to get to work,” Balderson said. “Over the next three months, I’m going to do everything I can to keep America great again.”