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GOP claims victory in key special election, but it's Dems who are smiling

In Ohio's congressional special election, the Republican is claiming victory, but it's Democrats who seem delighted with the results.

Recent polling suggested the congressional special election in Ohio's 12th would be very close, and with all of the precincts reporting, it's clear that the polls were right. As of this morning, Republican Troy Balderson leads Democrat Danny O'Connor by about 1,700 votes -- less than 1% of the overall total -- but as NBC News reported, the contest is still too close to call.

[M]ore than 3,400 provisional votes and 5,048 outstanding absentee ballots -- nearly quadruple the margin -- remained to be counted. State law bars boards of elections from counting those ballots until the 11th day after an election.The race could be headed to a recount, since state law triggers one if the candidates are within half a percent of each other after the final results are certified, which must take place no later than August 24.

It may be a while before we get a definitive answer, but that didn't stop Balderson from claiming victory last night. True to form, it also didn't stop Donald Trump from crediting himself for the GOP candidate's "great victory," which may yet prove to be a loss.

But while it certainly matters who won the special election, to focus exclusively on which candidate eked out a narrow victory is to miss the forest for the trees. The fact that the race in this district was close at all is excellent news for Democrats.

Ohio's 12th, after all, is a district that Republicans have held for 77 of the last 79 years. Trump won this district by 11 points two years ago, and when Rep. Pat Tiberi (R) stepped down, it was widely assumed that his party would hold onto the seat with relative ease.

Except, those assumptions were proven wrong. The GOP and its allies spent millions to win this special election, and Balderson may have benefited from, among other things, personal visits to the district from his party's president and vice president.

On paper, we'd look at these details and assume that the Republican -- a state lawmaker who has experience winning local elections -- would crush his Democratic rival. Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R) -- who, coincidentally, once held this seat -- said over the weekend that the contest "should be just a slam dunk" for his party, adding that the seat "shouldn't even be contested."

And yet, as of this morning, the GOP nominee is ahead by less than 1%, and he may yet lose.

As we've discussed before, elections tend to be zero-sum affairs. Candidates vie for a seat, the winner earns the opportunity to serve, and the loser gets nothing. No one gets a "nice job keeping it close" trophy.

That said, as we were reminded last night, context is everything.

What's more, this keeps happening. In the Trump era, underdog Democratic candidates ran surprisingly competitive congressional special election campaigns in reliably "red" districts in Montana, Georgia, Kansas, South Carolina, and Arizona. Yes, Republicans won those contests, but they turned out to be far more competitive than anyone expected.

Meanwhile, earlier this year, Rep. Conor Lamb (D) won in a Pennsylvania district that Trump carried by 20 points, and late last year, Sen. Doug Jones (D) won a U.S. Senate special election in Alabama, which Trump carried by nearly 28 points.

Dave Wasserman added yesterday that there are 68 GOP-held House districts where Republicans have less of an advantage than they do in Ohio's 12th -- and Democrats only need a net gain of 24 seats to reclaim the majority in the chamber.

If the party had to scramble to (maybe) eke out a highly competitive race in central Ohio, and these trends continue through the fall, the GOP will probably lose control of the House.