Forecasts for the upcoming midterm elections rely primarily on the generic congressional ballot poll, but an August special election for a House seat in Ohio might tell us more about the eventual outcome.
Ohio’s 12th congressional district was drawn by the Republican legislature to elect Republicans, and it has: Representative Pat Tiberi won reelection in every race this decade without serious opposition. Now that he has resigned, Democratic activists think that they might have a chance to win the seat, especially given the successes that Democratic candidates have had in special elections during Donald Trump’s presidency.
Since Trump’s inauguration, Democrats have captured a net 21 state legislative, senatorial, or congressional seats from Republicans in special elections. Fourteen of those seats came in districts that Trump carried with a higher percentage of the vote (53 percent) than he received in Ohio’s 12th district. When gains from last fall’s regularly scheduled elections are thrown into the mix, Democrats have picked up a net 39 seats from Republicans since January 2017.
The Democratic record is even more impressive when considering how far their candidates ran ahead of Hillary Clinton’s margin in these special elections, even when they lost the race. According to the Daily Kos, Democratic candidates’ margins in special elections, win or lose, has averaged 12 percent better than Clinton’s margins in those same districts. President Trump carried Ohio 12 by 11 percent, making it a potential gain for Democrats if their candidate performs just as well as the average Democratic special election candidate since 2017.
The demographics in the 12 congressional district show how the Democrats could pull off an upset. About 59 percent of the 2016 vote was cast in two counties, Franklin—home to the state capital, Columbus—and the high-income, well-educated suburban county of Delaware. Mitt Romney substantially outperformed Trump in both counties, as more moderate Republican voters crossed over to vote for Clinton in 2016. Democratic gains across the country have come in seats dominated by voters that fit this profile.
Republicans have a chance, however, because the other 41 percent of the district moved in exactly the opposite direction. These counties are dominated by white voters without college degrees, and they supported Trump by much larger margins than they did Romney. Trump’s winning margins outpaced Romney’s in these five counties by between 15 and nearly 29 points. If Republicans can attract former Democrats and independents who voted for Obama in 2012 and Trump in 2016, and add them to the loyal Republican base, they have a strong shot at holding the seat.
So far, however, Republican candidates in congressional special elections have done a poor job of attracting this type of voter. Eight special elections for either the Senate or the House have taken place since January 2017, and Republicans have run substantially behind Trump’s percentage of the vote in six of them. In those six races, the GOP candidate received between 77 percent and 90 percent of Trump’s share of the 2016 vote. Putting aside the result from Alabama’s senate special election, as Judge Roy Moore represents a special case, GOP candidates have performed similarly, winning only between 86 percent and 90 percent of Trump’s vote share. Applied to Ohio’s 12th congressional district, that means that we can expect the Republican candidate, State Senator Troy Balderson, to get between 45.8 percent and 47.9 percent of the vote. That’s not enough to win.
The polls in the race so far also point to Balderson’s dilemma. They have him receiving between 43 percent and 46 percent of the vote, though he is much better known than his Democratic opponent, Franklin County Recorder Danny O’Connor. These polls also measure Trump’s job approval rating and show him with positive ratings, between 48 percent and 54 percent. Balderson is winning only between 86 percent and 92 percent of Trump supporters’ votes, eerily like the showing other GOP special election candidates have demonstrated. Even if he were to get 100 percent of Trump’s supporters, he would still fall short in two of the three polls.
O’Connor is so far running a smart race. His only television ad to date features a promise not to support Nancy Pelosi for leader or House speaker if he is elected. In an historically Republican district, coming out against the most visible symbol of Democratic liberalism is just what O’Connor needs to do to reassure Romney-Clinton voters.
The stakes in this race are high. If Balderson wins, it shows that Republicans can carry the type of seat they need to keep hold of the House, or at least prevent the Democrats from winning a strong majority. But if O’Connor wins, or if he loses narrowly, Democrats will point to the result as evidence of a looming “blue wave” in November. House Republicans hold 67 seats that Trump either lost or carried by 11 points or less in 2016. If Balderson can’t win Ohio 12, donors will start expecting a Democratic sweep, giving Democrats the resources that they need to make that sweep a reality.
Electoral success is often driven by a sense of momentum. Victory in this once safe Republican, but now bellwether district could spark the national Democratic Party’s national push for victory this November. It’s up to Republicans to stop the momentum before it starts.