GOP relieved at outcome in central Ohio congressional race

Sen. Troy Balderson squeaked out a win in Tuesday’s Republican primary in the 12th congressional district. The seat was held by Rep. Pat Tiberi, who left to lead the Ohio Business Roundtable. Balderson’s win sets up an August special election against Democrat Danny O’Connor. Ann Sanner/AP Photo

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Sen. Troy Balderson squeaked out a win in Tuesday’s Republican primary in the 12th congressional district. The seat was held by Rep. Pat Tiberi, who left to lead the Ohio Business Roundtable. Balderson’s win sets up an August special election against Democrat Danny O’Connor. Ann Sanner/AP Photo

Some in party feared Rep. Jim Jordan’s endorsed candidate was too conservative and would lose in August’s special election.

Experts say Republican Troy Balderson’s narrow primary victory over arch-conservative Melanie Leneghan on Tuesday gives the GOP its best shot at holding onto a central Ohio congressional district seat this year.

A special election for the 12th Ohio congressional district seat will be held in August and a second election in November. Balderson, currently a state senator, will run in August against Democrat Danny O’Connor, the Franklin County recorder.

U.S. Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Urbana, had endorsed Leneghan, a Liberty Twp. trustee, but some in the party saw her as a divisive candidate who would fare badly against the well-known O’Connor. National Republicans even hinted they would bypass the election if Leneghan won.

The August special election is likely to attract national attention, and could give Democrats — who hold just four of 16 Ohio congressional seats — a big win as the party looks to make gains in November.

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The seat was made more competitive after longtime Rep. Pat Tiberi left to lead the Ohio Business Roundtable. Tiberi won the election in 2016 with more than 60 percent of the vote.

“It’s the only special election this summer, so there definitely will be some focus on it nationally,” said Franklin County Commissioner John O’Grady, who recruited O’Connor for the congressional race.

Kyle Kondik, a non-partisan analyst at the University of Virginia Center for Politics, said “there will be primaries going on throughout the summer, but in terms of a Democrat versus Republican race at the federal level, this is really the only game in town.”

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While the district leans Republican, Kondik said it is “gettable” for Democrats “if things break right for them.” Also, whoever wins will have a quick rematch in November. The special election will determine who finishes the remainder of Tiberi’s term, while the November election is about who represents the district in the next two-year cycle beginning in January.

Ohio had a similar situation in 2016 to fill out former Speaker John Boehner’s unfinished term. Rep. Warren Davidson, R-Troy, won a special election that June and then won again in November.

Democrats may still have an uphill battle in a district that includes part of Franklin County and all or portions of six other counties to the north and east of Columbus.

The 12th congressional district has been a safe Republican seat for more than three decades, held by Tiberi from 2001 through this January and by Ohio Gov. John Kasich from 1983 through 2000. President Donald Trump carried the district in 2016 by 11 percentage points.

“With the House, every seat counts,” said David Cohen, a political science professor at the University of Akron. “So I think they’re still going to try to put in an effort there. But, you know, follow the money. See where the money goes in the next couple of months.”

Kondik called Balderson a “soft favorite” to win over O’Connor.

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The vote totals Tuesday also provided little comfort for Democrats. Even as Republican numbers have cratered in other states, the GOP congressional primary drew nearly 67,847 voters compared to just 43,945 for the Democrats. Both Balderson and Leneghan received more votes than the 17,969 votes received by O’Connor.

“They spent a lot more money” O’Grady said of the nine GOP candidates compared to the six Democrats who ran in the primary. “When you spend that much more money turning your people out, you certainly are going to have a better turnout.”

“There’s a lot of excitement in our party, I know that,” O’Grady said.

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Republicans quickly tried to unify their fractured party after a bitter brawl which served as a proxy battle between Jordan and Tiberi, who supported Balderson. State Sen. Kevin Bacon, R-Westerville, who finished fourth in the GOP primary, swiftly endorsed Balderson.

The 653 votes which separated Balderson from Leneghan also may have muted some of the criticism directed at Rep. Steve Stivers, R-Upper Arlington, who heads the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Privately, some Republicans in Washington were irritated because Stivers did not attempt to forge a consensus early among the GOP candidates in an effort to avoid a divisive primary. But Stivers had pledged when he took the campaign job he would stay neutral in GOP primaries.

A clearly relieved Stivers said Wednesday, “I look forward to working with Troy to keep this seat red in August.”

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