Tuesday night ended with Troy Balderson narrowly ahead in the closely watched special election for a congressional seat in Ohio, and Republicans — including President Donald Trump — declaring victory.
But the photo finish — Balderson is ahead by 1,754 votes, with thousands of absentee and provisional ballots left to tally — in what has been a solid-GOP district shouldn’t provide much comfort for the party as it clings to an increasingly fragile House majority.
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It’s likely Balderson is coming to Congress next month, and his apparent victory over O’Connor gives him a leg up in the general election rematch, making it more difficult for Democrats to flip the district in 13 weeks.
There were also primaries in four states Tuesday — Kansas, Michigan, Missouri and Washington — that will shape the midterm landscape. The vote count in Kansas extended well into Wednesday morning, with two crucial races teetering on a knife’s edge through daybreak because of tabulation issues in the state’s most-populous county.
Here are POLITICO’s five takeaways from Tuesday’s elections:
1. The Republican cavalry came for Troy Balderson. But, come November, the weak will be left on the battlefield.
The National Republican Congressional Committee spent $1.3 million. Congressional Leadership Fund, the top House GOP super PAC, spent $3.2 million.
It was likely enough to vault Balderson over the top. But Republicans running in competitive districts against well-funded Democrats shouldn’t expect the same level of support.
That was the message Tuesday night from Corry Bliss, the executive director of CLF. Bliss touted CLF’s work in the district, saying the group implemented “an aggressive turnout operation … ultimately knocking on over 500,000 doors across the district.”
But that’s going to be harder to replicate in every competitive district in November. And Bliss suggested that candidates who don’t help themselves won’t get CLF’s assistance.
“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,” Bliss wrote. “Any Republican running for Congress getting vastly outraised by an opponent needs to start raising more money.”
As POLITICO’s Elena Schneider reported last month, 56 House GOP incumbents were outraised by their Democratic opponents in the second quarter of this year, and another two dozen Republicans running for open seats were outraised, too.
2. Republicans’ big suburban problem continues.
President Donald Trump did more poorly in the suburbs in 2016 than any Republican presidential candidate in recent memory — but he still won thanks to unprecedented strength in rural areas. But in key elections since then, many candidates in Trump’s GOP are running worse even in the suburbs than he did, from Ed Gillespie in Virginia to Balderson in Ohio’s special election.
Balderson still managed to finish Tuesday night’s vote count on top of O’Connor thanks to Trump-like vote shares in the rural counties, but that’s a marked shift from how Republicans have always won that district. Even while Trump got under 40 percent of the vote in the Franklin County portion of the 12th District in 2016 — the inner-most Columbus suburbs — and 56 percent in Delaware County, then-Rep. Pat Tiberi got 57 percent in Franklin and a whopping 72 percent in Delaware.
But Balderson plunged below both Tiberi and Trump on Tuesday, taking 35 percent in Franklin County and 54 percent in Delaware County. It was still enough for victory, but only barely, in a district that had elected Republicans by double digits for decades. Balderson’s Trump-like rural numbers will hearten some GOP members ahead of the midterms. But Republican incumbents running in suburbs from Northern Virginia to Orange County, California to Detroit to Minneapolis — all places where Democrats have shown more latent strength in recent years — will have to hope their personal reputations can break the GOP’s rapid deterioration in the suburbs under Trump.
3. A bad night for the far-left
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and New York Democratic House candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tried to play liberal kingmakers on Tuesday, six weeks after the latter shocked the political world by unseating a 10-term incumbent and member of House Democratic leadership. They parachuted into Michigan over the closing weeks to boost physician Abdul El-Sayed for governor, but El-Sayed finished nearly 20 points behind Whitmer, despite the national attention his prominent surrogates brought to the race.
Meanwhile, in Kansas’ 3rd District, Brent Welder, a liberal former Sanders staffer for whom both Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez campaigned last month, was defeated by Sharice Davids, a Native American former White House fellow endorsed by the pro-abortion-rights group EMILY’s List.
That means both Sanders- and Ocasio-Cortez-endorsed candidates lost to women candidates — Whitmer and Davids, respectively — the latest examples of the success of women in Democratic primaries this year. (Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez also campaigned for James Thompson, who easily won his primary in Kansas’ 4th District, but that race is considered less competitive.)
Moreover, those hoping for an Ocasio-Cortez-style win that shook the Democratic establishment will be disappointed. The New Yorker traveled to Missouri — without Sanders — to campaign for Cori Bush, a minister and nurse running against longtime Rep. Lacy Clay. Clay looked vulnerable; he only got 63 percent of the vote against a Sanders acolyte in 2016.
Bush did hold Clay under 60 percent this time but still came up about 20 points short of the nine-term congressman, who will continue his family’s five-decade-long hold on the St. Louis-district congressional district.
4. Not all Trump endorsements are created equal.
Trump took credit — on Twitter, of course — not just for Balderson’s victory, but also the wins tallied by his two endorsed candidates in the Michigan primary.
The president tweeted congratulations to state Attorney General Bill Schuette, who won the nomination for governor. Schuette will face former state Sen. Gretchen Whitmer in what will likely be one of the most competitive gubernatorial races this fall.
And Trump called Army veteran John James, who won the GOP nomination for Senate, a “future STAR of the Republican Party.” But James faces far steeper odds against Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) this fall.
But missing from Trump’s roll call late Tuesday night was Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach. When the final results were tallied Wednesday morning, Kobach was only 191 votes ahead of Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer in the closely watched GOP primary for governor.
If that narrow lead holds — the Associated Press did not call the race — Kobach could owe his victory to Trump’s Monday-morning Twitter endorsement.
5. The early Washington State vote count spells trouble for Republicans.
It’s going to take a few weeks for Washington State to finish counting its ballot: Under the mail-only system, voters can mail their ballots as late as Election Day.
But the early results — about two-thirds of the vote was tallied Tuesday night — are encouraging for Democrats’ chances to take back the House. Washington uses the same top-two, all-party primary as California, and the vote totals serve as a blinking red light on the GOP midterm dashboard.
In three targeted congressional districts, Republicans struggled to earn a majority of the vote, even in places that haven’t been competitive in past election cycles. The marquee race in the state is Washington’s 8th District, where Dino Rossi, the three-time GOP statewide candidate, finished first in the primary.
Rossi and the two other, minor Republicans on the ballot accounted for just 47 percent of the vote — 10 points shy of retiring GOP Rep. Dave Reichert’s vote share in the primary two years ago. Reichert did increase his vote share in the general election, winning 60 percent to 40 percent, and it appears Rossi will need a similar overperformance against his yet-to-be-determined Democratic opponent — either pediatrician Kim Schrier or attorney Jason Rittereiser — to keep the seat in GOP hands in the fall.
But Tuesday’s primary also put two other seats on the map for Democrats. In the 3rd District, Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler won 55 percent of the primary vote in 2016 but was only barely over 40 percent Tuesday night. Her Democratic opponent, Carolyn Long, a local college professor, was only a few points behind, and the combined vote shares for both parties were essentially even.
Similarly, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers — the only woman in House GOP leadership — could find herself in a competitive election after former state Sen. Lisa Brown ran neck-and-neck on Tuesday night. But Brown was the only Democrat in the race, and she will need to expand upon her 47 percent of the vote (in early returns) to topple the seven-term incumbent.