Republicans narrowly escaped another squeaker, this one out of OH-12. Democratic Danny O’Conner narrowly trails Republican Troy Balderson and despite as close as Democrats came they yet again seem not able to close the deal. I will get to why this matters in a second. The district, ancestrally Republican, was won by Donald Trump by 10 points in 2016 and then incumbent Pat Tiberi won reelection by 36 points. Since 2000, when Bush won it by 36 points, the district has trended away from the party. For example, in 2008, John McCain by it by 11 points, Romney by 9 points and Trump by 10 (note the district changed slightly in 2011 due to redistricting).
We knew going into this special election Democrats were energized and the race had narrowed. We knew the suburbs were turning against the GOP and Trump while rural areas were increasingly red. We also knew, after a close examination of PA-18, Republicans had difficulty in winning in ancestrally, not recently red. Congressional territory. All these things were confirmed Tuesday night.
For starters, Trump lost the Democratic Franklin county portion of the district by 32 percent in 2016. Balderson lost it by 35. This election Franklin County made up 35 percent of the electorate as opposed to 32 percent in 2016 and Democrats won the early vote by a whopping 50 points indicating party excitement. While O’Connor won Franklin by 35 points he lost everywhere else, including increasingly urbanizing Delaware County. While not as impressive as Trump, Balderson won every outlying county except Richland with two-thirds of the vote.
In past elections, Democrats had come close to winning in ancestrally red territory. They lost a deeply red Kansas district by six points. They lost by a similar margin in Montana. They also lost GA-6 (though in that case Handel performed better than Trump). More recently, they lost AZ-8, another red district. The party finally broke through in PA-18 but that district only recently moved to the GOP and was blue at the Presidential level since 2008. Tim Brady, it’s former Congressman, actually was more of a pro-union Republican than some Democrats were.
The point being voters in the district, as it was also older, had a long history and comfort level with voting for a Democrat. The same could not be said for OH-12. a younger district with more transplants and a solid history of voting Republican. In an election of inches we wondered if this would just be a bridge to far for Democrats to cross. Turns out it was. Yet again.
Now to be clear, this is not necessarily good news for the GOP. As Democrats and their analysts were happy to point out 68 districts are less Republican than OH-12. If Democrats can over-perform by 10 points in this district, the logic goes, then other seats will naturally go Democratic as well.
Take for example the results in WA State where every candidate in the primary runs on the same ballot and the top-two advance regardless of party. In suburban WA-8, the closest district in the state to OH-12, the combined Democratic vote outran the GOP vote by three percent. The district is slightly blue at the Presidential level but has been represented by Dave Reichert since 2004. The bigger item to note was in WA-5 where the Republican vote outweighed the Democratic vote by barely a point. This is a district that gave Trump a 13 point win and Cathy McMorris Rodgers a 19 point victory.
But, while it may be a familiar trope, it is no less true that every district is unique and the truth is OH-12 is similar to GA-6 in that it on paper is the perfect district for a takeover in the era of Trump. It is increasingly suburban and college educated but ancestrally red. In these places, regardless of their partisanship so far, Democrats have not found a winning formula.
In much bluer districts such as FL-26 and TX-23, Republican candidates have run surprisingly strong in races Democrats should supposedly be winning in. Instead, the best they are doing is getting ties.
Further, primaries tend not to bring out even meh turnout midterm voters. Usually this is to the detriment of the in-power party. It shows. Turnout to date in WA-5 was a meager 120,000 compared to over 310,000 in 2016. Democrats tend to over-perform overall primary results by a point or two on average but these districts are ancestrally red and Democrats have been unable to prove they can win them even in special elections when circumstances favor them.
In truth, both parties will read into OH-12 way to much. Democrats will argue it portends a wave. Republicans will argue their victory, albeit narrow, indicates their candidates can still squeak out victories. In truth, if Democrats win the House in November, it will be because they won some districts they planned on winning, exploiting GOP weaknesses and scandals and getting lucky. That is what it takes to win the House. But, don’t be surprised if they win some seats not currently on the radar and also lose some races they likely should have won due to the entrenched power of incumbent Republicans.