Politics

Ohio Race Was Worth Millions to Outside Groups in August. Now? Not So Much

Some see opportunities for Democrats in Balderson/O’Connor rematch

Democrat Danny O’Connor says he hasn’t let up the pace of his campaign for Ohio’s 12th District since narrowly losing a special election in August. (Courtesy Danny O’Connor for Congress)

The national attention showered on this summer’s special election in Ohio’s 12th District may have moved elsewhere. And the font of spending from outside groups has all but dried up. But the losing Democratic nominee Danny O’Connor has not stopped running. 

That’s what Paul Beck, a longtime campaign observer, noticed when an O’Connor canvasser came knocking on the door of his Franklin County home: It was the candidate’s dad. 

And it’s one of several signs that the 31-year-old county recorder has redoubled his efforts in the district since losing to Republican Troy Balderson by less than a percentage point in August. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the race a Toss-up.

The sudden show of complacency from everyone but O’Connor has some political watchers scratching their heads. 

“It’s a puzzle to me,” said Beck, a professor emeritus of political science at Ohio State University in Columbus. “You would think this would be a race that would be a prime target for outside spending. It hasn’t been.”

Of course, conventional wisdom holds that a candidate who loses a special election is unlikely to win in the November regular election. And the lack of major outside spending may not matter in such an ancestrally Republican district. But with Democrats seemingly on the cusp of netting the 23 seats needed to flip the House, there are several reasons to think the seat could still be in play.  

Watch: Democrats Are Breaking Fundraising Records 3 Weeks From Election Day

Money matters

Balderson’s narrow victory in the August election to replace GOP Rep. Pat Tiberi came after outside groups invested more than $8 million in the race, which they saw as a bellwether for the midterms.

The majority of that money came from GOP groups desperate to hold on to a longtime GOP stronghold that President Donald Trump carried by 11 points in 2016.

The election also took place during the height of the summer, when the more liberal-leaning college students from Ohio State and smaller schools in the region were mostly away on summer break. This time around, O’Connor could also benefit from races at the top of the ticket, especially with Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown favored for re-election. 

A survey for O’Connor’s campaign in September found the race was nearly tied, with Balderson up 47 percent to 46 percent.

Since then, only one group, the Republican-affiliated Defending Main Street, has tossed a mere $145,000 into an ad supporting Balderson in the general. The Republican went on the air earlier this month, but some district residents say they’ve seen little sign of his campaign on the ground.

O’Connor, meanwhile, has aired two television ads, according to The Columbus Dispatch, and has blanketed yard signs in neighborhoods like Peck’s in the Democratic-leaning parts of the district. 

Reached by phone Wednesday during a car ride from an Asian-American event to a meet-and-greet in Albany, Ohio, O’Connor said he feels good about his chances and hasn’t let up the pace of his campaign. 

“We’ve talked to people in every place you can think of,” he said. “At Buckeye games, at Friday night football games, at diners, at their doorstep, in their churches.” 

 

He also topped the list of House Democratic candidates raising astronomical sums in the third quarter that ended Sept. 30.

While most of the nearly $6 million he raised came before the Aug. 7 special election, his campaign said it raised $2.3 million since. He ended the third quarter with more than $1 million in the bank. 

Balderson, in contrast, raised $1 million during the whole third quarter, according to FEC records, ending with $388,000 in the bank. 

“If I were a Republican strategist, I would be worried,” Beck said. “Here might be a district that, because they weren’t attending to it, might slip from their grasp.”

Skepticism abounds

Not everyone thinks O’Connor has a shot this time around, however.

Mark C. Smith, a professor of political science at Cedarville University, pointed out that, with the exception of one term in the 1980s, the GOP has held the district since 1939. And Republicans generally benefit from stronger turnout in midterms. Those dynamics favor Balderson, he said, and the lack of outside spending reflects his advantage. 

“In August, a targeted amount of spending had a reasonable chance to shift a seat,” he said. “Given the 50 or 60 competitive seats across the nation right now, and the fact that Republicans enjoy a structural advantage in Ohio 12 during regular election cycles, money spent in Ohio 12 could feel like wasted money.”

Republicans, likewise, say they aren’t concerned.

GOP consultant Matt Borges noted that O’Connor had a lot of money before the special election — and he still lost. 

“He dumped about as much money as you would want to spend into the special election, and I don’t see how this environment gets better for [Democrats],” said Borges, the former chairman of the Ohio Republican Party. “Voters are going to go the polls thinking this matter has already been adjudicated.”

If Democratic groups thought the seat was winnable, Borges said, they would be putting money behind O’Connor now. 

“The Democrats know they need to look elsewhere for pickup opportunities,” he said. 

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