It took over $3.5 million, visits from the president and vice president, and a late endorsement from the sitting governor, but Republicans appeared likely to eke out a victory in a House special election Tuesday night seen as a bellwether for the November midterms.
The potential victory gave President Donald Trump bragging rights after his last-minute trek to the central Ohio district provided GOP candidate Troy Balderson a much needed lift. And though the outcome was too close to officially declare a winner, Balderson’s lead at the end of the night averted an embarrassing outright loss for his party, which would have generated a crush of bad headlines about the GOP’s fading prospects and the growing likelihood of a blue wave in the fall.
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Yet warning signs abound following a razor-thin outcome in a district that Republicans have held for over three decades. Trump won there by double digits in 2016 and, in most years, the seat never would have been in contention to begin with.
Democrats, who need to net 23 seats to seize control of the House, were quick to point out that there are dozens of districts in play this November that are less favorable to the GOP than Ohio’s 12th. And while Republicans flooded the suburban Columbus area with millions of dollars in campaign ads, they won’t be able to spend such a large amount — or deploy Trump to campaign — in all those places during a general election when numerous candidates are going to be competing for party resources.
There are indications that the field of imperiled Republican-held seats is growing. Behind the scenes, Republican officials are polling districts across the country to determine who’s in jeopardy and in need of help as the post-Labor Day campaign push approaches, a list that includes incumbents residing in relatively conservative areas, such as New York Rep. Claudia Tenney and Kentucky Rep. Andy Barr.
Some party strategists called the contest, the final special election before the midterms, as a wake-up call.
“For Republicans the mission in this special election was simple: ‘Survive and advance,’” said Ken Spain, a former top National Republican Congressional Committee official. “But while a win is a win, it is clear the congressional playing field is widening, not shrinking.”
Republicans are particularly concerned about contests in suburban areas, where Trump threatens to be a drag on the party’s candidates. Prior to departing for the August congressional recess, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy convened the GOP conference for a meeting to discuss the political environment heading into the fall. He warned lawmakers that Democrats were poised to spend heavily against them, and urged them to sharpen their messaging toward pivotal suburban voters, according to two people who were present.
The Ohio district, which is filled with upper income and higher educated voters that the president has struggled with, was emblematic of the GOP’s struggles. During the closing days of the race, Balderson leaned heavily on an endorsement from Ohio Gov. John Kasich, a moderate Republican and fierce Trump critic who remains popular in the Columbus suburbs.
“This is the same story we’ve seen in every special election and last year’s gubernatorial races: The Democratic base is fired up, we’re on defense in suburban seats, and it’s going to be a challenging fall,” said Robert Blizzard, a veteran GOP pollster who advised Balderson. “We’ve known this for a year-and-a-half.”
Some senior Republicans blamed the closeness of the race on Balderson, who they panned as a poor candidate. On the closing evening of the campaign, Balderson appeared to diss voters in Franklin County, a vote-rich, more liberal part of the district.
Balderson was out-fundraised by his 31-year-old Democratic opponent, Danny O’Connor — forcing the Republican to rely heavily on outside groups to air an advertising campaign on his behalf.
“While we won tonight, this remains a very tough political environment and moving forward, we cannot expect to win tough races when our candidate is being outraised,” said Corry Bliss, the executive director of Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC aligned with House Speaker Paul Ryan that spent millions of dollars in support of Balderson.
“Any Republican running for Congress getting vastly outraised by an opponent needs to start raising more money,” Bliss added.
Others saw upsides. Trump’s late visit, they said, showed that the president had the ability to mobilize his supporters behind congressional candidates. Blizzard, the Balderson pollster, said Trump had given “a shot in the arm to base Republicans across the district.”
With the special election behind them, the president’s advisers have been mapping out what House districts he can play in this fall. On Wednesday, Trump will host a fundraiser for House Republicans at his Bedminster, New Jersey golf club.
As the results trickled in, many in the party breathed a sigh of relief. A defeat, they said, likely would have sent the House GOP Conference into a panic. While the outlook for the party remained bleak, they argued, the outcome showed that support for the GOP hadn’t completely collapsed.
“It tells me that we’re headed for a rough year,” said Oklahoma Rep. Tom Cole, a past NRCC chairman. “But it certainly doesn’t suggest to me that we should give up hope.”
Elena Schneider contributed to this report.