The Democratic candidate, Danny O’Connor, 31, has kept apace with Republican Troy Balderson, with the latest Monmouth University poll showing the race to be a statistical dead heat.
COLUMBUS, Ohio — It was a muggy Thursday morning when Drew Niccum, a sophomore at Ohio State University, drove 40 miles from campus to his hometown of Newark to conduct an unusual summer activity for central Ohio: cast a ballot for a Democratic congressional candidate — who just might win.
“It’s been a pretty safe Republican district for a pretty long time,” Niccum said. “I’m just excited that my district is actually competitive this year.”
Ohio’s 12th Congressional District, which spans the largely well-to-do suburbs around the state capital, Columbus, and backed President Donald Trump by 11 points in 2016, has been solidly Republican for decades. Voters here sent now-Gov. John Kasich to Congress in 1982 for the first of nine consecutive terms. Kasich was succeeded by Republican Patrick Tiberi in 2001, who held the office for 17 years before he resigned in January — leaving the seat wide open for the first time in a generation.
But after a string of Republican special-election losses over the past year in areas that voted for Trump but have grown less supportive of him, the vote Tuesday to replace Tiberi has emerged as the latest big test to see which party will win control of the House in November.
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Republicans have following a familiar playbook: Send in the cavalry.
House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Vice President Mike Pence have made trips to Ohio in recent days to campaign for the GOP candidate, Troy Balderson, 56, a state senator whose mainstream party bona fides would probably make him a slam dunk for victory in ordinary times.
On Monday, Trump tweeted his “full and total Endorsement!” of Balderson, and then said he would fly in himself to host a rally in the suburbs of Delaware County, just north of Columbus.
Nevertheless, the Democratic candidate, Danny O’Connor, 31, has kept pace with Balderson, with the latest Monmouth University poll showing the race to be a statistical dead heat.
O’Connor, a lawyer who was elected Franklin County recorder in 2016, has evoked comparisons to another young moderate Democrat, Conor Lamb, whose March special-election victory in a heavily GOP Pennsylvania district Trump had won by 20 points served as an early sign of a potential Democratic wave in the fall. Adding to the GOP’s anxiety is the sense that Ohio, a perennial battleground that Trump easily won two years ago, is looking more like a Democratic stronghold in 2018, with Sen. Sherrod Brown favored to win re-election and the party looking competitive in the governor’s race.
The special election in recent days has offered a glimpse of how the parties are likely to approach their fall campaigns across the country in many key House battlegrounds.
O’Connor is presenting himself as a centrist who is willing to work with Trump at times while attacking Balderson for his opposition to the Affordable Care Act, the health-care law enacted by President Barack Obama.
Balderson and his allies, meanwhile, are attacking O’Connor as an ally of national Democrats, seizing, for instance, on his comments that he “would support whoever the Democrats put forward” for House speaker after initially saying he would not vote for Nancy Pelosi. National Republican groups have poured more than $3.3 million into local television ads, according to NBC News, that have tried to tie O’Connor to Pelosi.
The presence of Trump points to a fundamental question of this year’s elections: whether the president’s ability to excite core GOP voters can overcome the fact that many Republicans who live in closely fought suburban House districts have soured on the president.
Publicly, Balderson’s campaign has embraced Trump’s support. But some Ohio Republicans have voiced skepticism over whether a Trump rally might do more harm than good, especially because the president visited a more affluent, higher-educated, suburban part of the district where Republicans’ support for him has waffled.
“The best-case scenario is that the presence of the president reminds not only Republicans but center-right voters that there’s a special election on Tuesday,” said Doug Preisse, chairman of the Franklin County Republican Party.
O’Connor has steered clear of some of the liberal positions that have taken hold in much of the national Democratic Party. He said he doesn’t support abolishing the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, a position embraced by many liberals. He tells voters he’s open to working with anyone, including Trump.
O’Connor often notes that his fiancée, who is campaigning with him, is a Republican. “She’s a Dannycrat now,” he jokes.
O’Connor, like many Democrats, has sought to focus his campaign on health care, though he has stopped short of embracing a “Medicare for All” plan favored on the left.
Balderson opposed Ohio’s Medicaid expansion and has vowed to “repeal and replace Obamacare once and for all.”
The same two candidates will square off on the ballot Nov. 6.