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 will have a lot on the line when voters in Ohio’s 12th District go to the polls in a special election Tuesday.
Trump has gone all-in for Republican candidate Troy Balderson, even holding a rally to rev up support for him in the district on Saturday evening.
Soon after that event, Trump reiterated his support for Balderson via a tweet, adding that the Democratic candidate, Danny O’Connor, would be “a total puppet for Nancy Pelosi and Maxine WatersMaxine Moore WatersMcCarthy yanks endorsement of California candidate over social media posts Top bank regulator announces abrupt resignation GOP pulls support from California House candidate over ‘unacceptable’ social media posts MORE.”
Trump’s investment of political capital in Balderson is a risky bet. In a district last won by a Democrat in 1980 — and one that Trump himself carried by 11 points in 2016 — the race looks like a dead heat.
Of the two most recent opinion polls, from Emerson and Monmouth University, one gave O’Connor a 1-point edge and the other gave the same statistically insignificant advantage to Balderson.
Democrats shy away from predicting an O’Connor victory with any real confidence. But they say their party has already scored a moral victory — and delivered a rebuke to Trump — by making the contest so close.
“Trump’s already lost no matter what the outcome,” insisted Jerry Austin, a longtime, now-retired Democratic strategist in the state.
“If the Democrat wins, Trump’s obviously lost. But if the Democrat comes within 5 points, he loses too. This is a district that should be a safe Republican district. Because it is in play, because it is competitive, he’s lost.”
The broader Republican Party has made a major effort to shore up Balderson.
The Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC closely linked with Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanBush, Romney won’t support Trump reelection: NYT Twitter joins Democrats to boost mail-in voting — here’s why Lobbying world MORE (R-Wis.), has spent more than $3 million on the race, according to Open Secrets, while the National Republican Congressional Committee has kicked in another $1.3 million.
Those two groups alone dwarf the money backing O’Connor. Vice President Pence has also stumped on Balderson’s behalf, and the Republican National Committee has invested heavily in its get-out-the-vote operation.
But the jury is out on Trump.
No one doubts that his presence delivered a jolt of enthusiasm to the Republican base — which could be especially useful, since Balderson only squeaked past a more overtly pro-Trump candidate, Melanie Leneghan, in the May 8 GOP primary.
On the other hand, skeptics question just how good a fit Trump is for a district that was represented for many years by one of his main nemeses within the GOP, John Kasich, now the state’s governor.
Trump has also complicated matters of his own volition by attacking NBA star LeBron James — a native of Akron and someone revered across the state — on Twitter.
Still, “the president’s trip was fortuitous for Troy Balderson because there was some lagging enthusiasm among the base — not because of Troy but because of some level of overconfidence,” said Mark R. Weaver, a GOP strategist in Ohio.
Weaver noted that Republicans in the 12th District were unaccustomed to races where every vote might count.
He also asserted that concerns about Trump’s visit being counterproductive were ill-founded. Whether Trump came in person or not, he said, “liberal Democrats are already so triggered by this president that they want to come out and vote against the Republicans.”
But not everyone was so sure.
Michael Gonidakis, another GOP strategist who works for an anti-abortion organization in the state, said that even though the president’s presence delivered a needed “shot of adrenaline” for Balderson, it “has also fired up some Democrats who dislike President Trump.”
The result on Tuesday will clearly be seen as a harbinger of things to come in November’s midterm elections. But it will also be taken as a sign of Trump’s political health in the Buckeye State.
Trump won Ohio by 8 points in 2016, a startling contrast to then-President Obama’s 3-point victory in 2012.
But his popularity has ebbed since then. A Marist poll in the state in late June found that 48 percent of Ohioans disapproved of the president’s job performance and only 40 percent approved.
Worryingly for Team Trump, 57 percent of Ohioans said he did not deserve to be reelected in 2020.
“It really is the central question: Is Ohio the state of 2016 again, or has something changed?” said Janetta King, the founder of progressive think tank Innovation Ohio.
“I would argue that something has changed,” King continued. “I think that Donald Trump’s administration has been very divisive. He has taken positions that have, in fact, hurt working people and working families, and he has not delivered on some of the very unrealistic expectations that he promised.”
The Republican counterargument, reduced to its essence, is: Don’t get carried away.
Most GOP insiders expect Balderson to eke out a victory on Tuesday — “I still think it is Troy Balderson’s to lose,” said Gonidakis — and they also caution that the idiosyncrasies of special elections need to be borne in mind.
This is particularly important, they say, when Election Day falls in early August, when many Ohioans are on vacation or thinking about the imminent start to the school year.
“We shouldn’t read too much into this particular election,” Weaver insisted. “The district will return to its normal voting patterns in November.”
But that doesn’t alter the fact that the stakes are sky high on Tuesday.
A win for O’Connor, or even a very slim victory for Balderson, would send up a warning flare for the GOP nationwide, and for the man in the White House.
“The polls are showing it’s neck-and-neck, and honestly it shouldn’t be,” said David Cohen, the assistant director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron.
“In a normal year, a Republican would easily win this race. But 2018 is not a normal year — and we are not living in normal times.”
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.
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