Just over a week ago (August 7th), there was a special election in the 12th Congressional district of Ohio. The 12th wraps around the north and east side of Columbus in central Ohio. The election there was needed because the incumbent congressman, Republican Pat Lipari, had chosen to retire before the end of his term now only five months away. The district has been almost continuously Republican since the Civil War. With only two years missed, the 12th has elected Republicans to the House for the last 80 years. Lipari, elected for the 9th time, had won there in 2016 by a margin of 35%. And, Donald Trump as a presidential candidate in 2016 had won there too.
So, it would hardly have been surprising if the new Republican candidate, Troy Balderson, had won easily running against a 31 year old Democratic political newcomer Danny O’Connor. He did not. In fact, one week later it is still not officially clear who won! The vote count stands at 101,772 for Balderson and 100,208 of O’Connor. There are some 5000 votes which ended up uncounted which will be counted on August 18. That will decide. What would have appeared to have been a predictably easy victory for a Republican candidate is still hanging by a thread a week after the election.
The question is important because, with the 2018 congressional elections only five months away, there are few opportunities for the parties to test run their election themes and to work on the machinery of their campaigns. The Republicans have a tremendous stake in demonstrating that they can hold Republican districts like the 12th (if they can’t their bitterly quarreling majority is doomed). The Democrats who feel themselves ascendant understand the value of knocking off a candidate in enemy territory. The special election also offered actives in both parties the opportunity to test the political power of Donald Trump who clearly came out for Balderson.
The 12th District, with a total population of 758,614 (758,000 is pretty typical of congressional districts. There are 435 representatives in the House so the fifty states are divided into 435 districts but even small population states (think Wyoming with a population of only 573,720) have to have at least one. The others are divided equally based on each state’s population.). Demographically the 12th is overwhelmingly white (87.2%), and no other racial/ethnic group has as much as five percent. So, in a district predominantly white, with a long history of Republican political dominance, the Republican candidate was able only to barely match his young Democratic opponent. What lesson can the parties learn from this small election in the middle of Ohio?
What can we learn from that election a week ago? We can learn that spending large amounts of money may not make that much difference. Together, Troy Balderson’s campaign, along with supportive outside groups, spent 4.56 million dollars just in this one district. That means that the money that the Republican campaign poured into one congressional district (Ohio is divided into 16 equal population districts), bought them a little over 100,000 votes at the cost of about $50.00 a vote (Democrat O’Connor spent 3.16 million dollars or about $32 dollars a vote).
It isn’t just Ohio! The truth is that neither party’s candidates in 2018 are really sure how to campaign in a world where local party organizations have been allowed to die. Not knowing what to do, today’s parties and candidates have entered into a political arms race in which they blindly shower the campaigns with money. The amounts of money that campaigning now demands can most efficiently come from the coffers of the very rich and they often get their money’s worth as the last year’s big tax cuts demonstrated. If $7,000,000 is spent gaining votes in one sixteenth of Ohio the result is massive overkill. It’s hard to measure the real effect of all those dollars. With no campaign at all in a very Republican district, Balderson might have done just as well.
It is a truism now that well-off suburbs are, with their more educated populations, moving to the Democrats (in 2016, Hillary Clinton won every one of the country’s 493 richest counties, many predominantly suburban). The Republicans recognize that they are losing in the suburbs. Republican Balderson ran a “Trumpian” campaign aimed at getting out the vote in the most rural sections of the sprawling district. The Democrat O’Connell captured a much larger share of the most suburban parts of the district than Democrats ever have in the past. Suburban voters clearly are moving to the Democrats. Last week’s election in the 12th only highlighted what has been happening nationally.
Troy Balderson was not a bad candidate. He could show considerable political experience (He had been a state representative or a state senator for a period of 9 years). His consistent staunch conservatism certainly appeals to a substantial segment of his district’s voters. And, President Trump came to the district and held one of his famous rallies to marshal support for Balderson. His opponent, 31 year old lawyer Danny O’Connor, has never held a legislative office. For the experienced Republican candidate to be tied is to be defeated!
In a contest like this, particularly one where Donald Trump comes to the district and seems to campaign for himself, the election really becomes a referendum on Donald Trump. In the election a week ago, Troy Balderson had all the advantages. He was the most experienced, he spent most money, and he was in a virtually all white historically Republican district. He was tied by young Democratic newcomer. It is hard not to believe that a good part of his failure to win was caused by Donald Trump’s rejection by voters, particularly suburban ones. Trump has announced over and over again that he wants to campaign “full time” for Republican candidates in the fall. That is going to create an agonizing dilemma for many of those candidates. Unless they are in rural, small town districts, Republican candidates are going be desperate to keep him away. The 12th District of Ohio has just shown why!