The Buckeye Special: Insights from Ohio’s 12th Congressional District By Heather E. Yates
Are last week's elections a sign of what is to come in November? Of the five states that held elections, Ohio’s special election in the 12th House district, to replace the retired incumbent, Patrick Tiberi, was a unique opportunity to examine the current state of play between the political parties. Even though results are still out, Republicans and Democrats lay claim to good things for their bottom line in the U.S. Midterms.
It is important to remember that elections are difficult to forecast, but one conventional theory that guides electoral interpretation is that the President’s party is politically vulnerable in the first midterm of the administration. The last midterm a President’s party picked up seats in Congress was in 2002, when the Republicans gained a total of 10 seats (8 in the House, 2 in the Senate). Trump would like to replicate that victory, but there are some indicators showing some genuine struggle in Republican districts as reflected in Tuesday evening’s results.
Ohio holds particular importance to interpreting elections because it is considered a bellwether state, that is, a state where the voters tend to consistently reflect national voting trends. Tuesday’s special election matched Trump-backed Republican, Troy Balderson, and Democrat Danny O’Connor, where presently, the race is too close to call. Balderson leads O’Connor with less than one point at 50.2 percent to 49.3 percent. Balderson claimed victory Tuesday evening, but O’Connor has not conceded the race.
The results are presently undergoing verification and with more than 3,000 provisional ballots to count. The OH-12 is a centrally located, mostly rural district along the northern side of Columbus. It is a solid Republican district: it has been represented by a Democrat only twice in the 20th century. The last time a Democrat was elected to the OH-12 was 1980. Given the district’s history, Tuesday’s results indicate an unusually competitive contest.
Messaging and Strategy
There are two predominant themes Balderson espoused that represent a broader Republican messaging strategy for the midterms. First, limit discussion of economy to positive indicators, such as the low unemployment rate, while avoiding discussion about trade tariffs and the 2017 tax reform. Second, maintain attention on social and cultural wedge issues that provide reliable go-to talking points to rally supporters. Balderson resembled this strategy when he, referring to O’Connor, professed that the district did not want someone from the neighboring county to represent it.
For Democrats, their messaging appears piecemeal at times. The party is publicly struggling with defining a unified message. Difficulties with messaging are exacerbated by indicators of an internal party struggle shown by a cohort of 25 Democrats, including O’Connor, who are campaigning on their opposition to Nancy Pelosi as party leader. It is also a strategy used by Democrats in conservative districts to rebuff Republican opponents trying to nationalize House elections.
Furthermore, Democrats suspended the referendum narrative after it failed to gain traction in the 2017 special elections. They refocused on more substantive platform issues like healthcare, and immigration reform. Both parties have labored strategies when it comes to message, and it is difficult to ascertain whether or not message will motivate voter participation.
Campaign Finance and Outside Spending
The amount of campaign donations that flowed into the OH-12 was significant. In summary, O’Conner outraised and outspent Balderson. More than half of O’Connor’s contributions were small individual donations followed by large individual contributions. Much of the Democrats’ fundraising apparatus concentrates on cultivating small individual donations.
By contrast, most of Balderson’s contributions were sourced from large individual contributions and PAC donations. A more itemized comparison of sectors donated to each candidate; show that both O’Connor and Balderson received their largest amounts of PAC donations from ideological and single-issue groups. In terms of independent expenditures, financial records show that approximately 25 PACS (8 Liberal and 17 Conservative) spent money on behalf of each candidate.
Figures show that there were more independent expenditures opposing O’Connor than Balderson. A total of $3.7K was spent on negative ads opposing O’Connor and $2.4K was spent on favorable ads for Balderson. Given the amount of outside spending on the special election, the narrow point spread between the candidates offer encouraging indicators for the Democrats, but its not a foregone conclusion as the race is still being certified.
Distinctive Features of Special Elections
Although the Democrats flipped only two of the special elections, they interpret the unusually competitive campaigns as positive signs ahead of November. The districts shared a common profile; they were strong Republican districts that Trump (and Romney) won by double digits.
Democrats were uniquely competitive because they benefited from a concentrated focus of resources funneled to their special elections. This is a distinctive variable that will not be broadly available to all competitors wishing to flip their district in the general election.
As Tuesday’s Democratic primary in KS-03 suggests, the competitive edge might come from independent expenditures; however, they are both friend and foe. Independent expenditures cannot be coordinated with a candidate’s campaign, therefore dilutes a candidate’s control over the message and strategy.
Yet, Democrats remain hopeful that the narrow margins of defeat and a few upsets are indicators of voter enthusiasm and, more significant, motivation. Democrats are likely to remain hopeful that the OH-12, win or lose, offer a hint of something positive for the party in November.
Heather E. Yates (@heatheryatesphd) is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Central Arkansas and the author of The Politics of Emotions, Candidates, and Choices (Palgrave).