Washington: Tuesday’s special congressional election in Ohio is the final direct face-off between Republicans and Democrats before the November midterms, and President Donald Trump’s party is holding its breath.
Voters were casting their ballots in a race seen by many as a referendum on the president, who campaigned in the district over the weekend to boost the Republican candidate.
The seat was supposed to remain safely in Republican hands. But amid swirling frustration with the commander-in-chief, including from within his party, the battle for Ohio’s 12th district has emerged as a potential harbinger of the outcome of national elections in November that will determine which party controls the US Congress.
Democrats, counting on a “blue wave” in November propelled by grassroots activism, see Tuesday’s vote as an opportunity to flip a district long held by Republicans. If they prevail, it would send a message that Trump’s brand of attack politics is in trouble.
Republicans control both the Senate and House of Representatives, but Trump is worried that any slippage could hurt his ability to push through his agenda — and expose him to Democratic efforts to oust him from power.
In recent weeks, he has made several campaign appearances ahead of state primaries, endorsing congressional and gubernatorial candidates while imploring his supporters to vote.
Pollsters rate the Ohio race between Republican state senator Troy Balderson and 31-year-old Democratic county official Danny O’Connor as a tossup. In a swing state that Trump won by eight points in 2016, Balderson’s 10-point lead in June has evaporated.
“Ohio, vote today for Troy Balderson for Congress,” the president tweeted, saying O’Connor “is weak on Crime, the Border, Military, Vets, your 2nd Amendment – and will end your Tax Cuts.”
Vice President Mike Pence and Trump’s sons Donald Jr and Eric also urged voters to back Balderson.
An O’Connor victory in the race to succeed retired GOP congressman Patrick Tiberi in an affluent suburban district held by Republicans for three decades would be a massive shot in the arm for Democrats seeking to take back the House.
“The fact it’s a dead heat indicates Republicans all across the country are in trouble,” said University of Akron political science professor David Cohen, who has studied elections for two decades.
“That Dems are even competitive in Ohio’s 12th district is an indication that the blue wave may in fact be coming,” he told AFP.
The Republicans’ challenge is to hold their House majority, but experts say that appears increasingly difficult. Democrats need to flip 23 seats nationally to reclaim the 435-seat House.
– Blue or red wave? –
On Friday, RealClearPolitics put the generic ballot — a poll of whether Americans will vote for Democrats or Republicans for Congress — in favor of Democrats by 6.1 percentage points.
Democrats have already shown their muscle in several races over the past year, winning key special elections in Republican-leaning southwestern Pennsylvania and deep-red Alabama, and coming unexpectedly close in others.
Trump is well aware he needs a victory Tuesday in Ohio, if only to tamp down the sense of panic over the looming midterms.
Ohio polls close at 7:30pm (2330 GMT), and officials there told local media that turnout appeared heavy for a special election.
O’Connor acknowledged that getting supporters out to the polls was crucial.
“They’ve got to get out and vote. Democracy is a partition sport, it’s not a spectator sport,” he said, according to The Columbus Dispatch.
In addition to Balderson, Trump endorsed a more provocative Republican candidate on a primary ballot.
Kansas Attorney General Kris Kobach — known for his divisive positions on immigration and voting rights — is running for governor against the Republican incumbent.
Others in the party had urged Trump not to intervene, warning that nominating such a controversial figure as Kobach, a Trump loyalist, could energize Democrats.
But the Republican president made the extraordinary move of supporting the challenger over a sitting Republican governor, calling Kobach a “fantastic” guy in a tweet endorsing him.
Two seats in Kansas’s all-Republican congressional delegation are seen as potential Democratic pickups.
Primary elections are also being held Tuesday in Michigan, Missouri and Washington state.