Ohio special election 'should be a slam dunk and it's not'

Ohio voters cast their votes at the polls for early voting in the 2012 US presidential election in Medina, Ohio, Oct. 26, 2012. (Photo by Aaron Josefczyk/Reuters)
Ohio voters cast their votes at the polls for early voting in the 2012 US presidential election in Medina, Ohio, Oct. 26, 2012.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R) was asked over the weekend about today's congressional special election in his state's 12th district, which is a traditional Republican stronghold. The governor conceded that the race is "very close."

"It's really kind of shocking because this should be just a slam dunk and it's not. [...]"It really doesn't bode well for the Republican Party because this shouldn't even be contested."

Quite right. This a district the GOP presidential ticket won by 11 points. Since World War II, the district has been represented by a Democrat for exactly one term, which paints a striking portrait of the area: a Republican has held this seat 77 of the last 79 years. Two years ago, then-incumbent Rep. Pat Tiberi (R) won re-election in this district by 37 points.

What's more, as NBC News reported the other day, outside groups associated with Republicans have spent nearly $4 million in this special election, which doesn't include the nearly $1 million the GOP candidate -- state lawmaker Troy Balderson -- has invested, "either on its own or in conjunction with the National Republican Congressional Committee."

Donald Trump personally visited the area over the weekend, headlining a campaign rally in support of Balderson's candidacy, which followed a local appearance from Vice President Mike Pence.

In other words, Republicans are pulling out all the stops for this guy. And yet, there's Danny O'Connor, a moderate Democrat and county official, who stands a decent chance of winning. A Monmouth University poll last week found Balderson up by just one point, while an Emerson College poll released yesterday showed O'Connor narrowly ahead.

It obviously matters who prevails, but Kasich's point from the weekend resonates: this contest should be "a slam dunk" for the GOP, and the fact that it's come down to the wire "doesn't bode well for the Republican Party."

Scott Jennings, a veteran Republican strategist who ran Mitt Romney's Ohio operation in 2012, told McClatchy News last week, "In a good year, in a good environment, you probably wouldn't worry so much about this district. In a bad year, a bad environment, it's exactly the kind of district you worry about, particularly because of the suburban elements that exist in this district."

Complicating matters for Republicans is the fact that Ohio's 12th is the latest in a series of related races. In the Trump era, underdog Democratic candidates ran surprisingly competitive congressional special election campaigns in "red" districts in Montana, Georgia, Kansas, South Carolina, and Arizona. Sure, 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 a state Trump carried by nearly 28 points.

I won't pretend to know who's going to win in Ohio today, but even if Balderson ekes out a victory, Republicans shouldn't breathe a sigh of relief. The fact that this race is as close as it is, and required such extensive GOP investments, is emblematic of a real problem.