Democrats did not get the win they wanted in Tuesday’s special election in Ohio’s 12th congressional district.
The apparent narrow loss, nevertheless, contains some good news for Democratic chances in the fall. But it also contains two sobering lessons that Democrats should heed if they want to ensure a blue wave actually hits Republican shores in November.
First, the good news. Democrat Danny O’Connor lost by less than 1% in a district that Donald Trump carried by 11%. If other Democrats run just as well in their House races this fall, the Democrats will easily take control of the House. Republicans currently hold 69 seats that Trump either lost or carried by a smaller margin than his margin in Ohio 12. Democrats only need to win 24 of these to take back the House.
O’Connor also performed well in the high income, well-educated suburbs that Democrats need to carry to do well in November. He beat the Republican, Troy Balderson, by more than 20% in Franklin County and lost the wealthiest part of the seat, Delaware County, by less than 10%. According to data from the progressive website the Daily Kos, Republican Mitt Romney lost Franklin County by less than 3% against former president Barack Obama while carrying Delaware by over 23%.
This continues a pattern that has pertained since Trump’s inauguration: former Republicans who cast votes for Hillary Clinton in 2016 are now voting for Democrats across the board.
Democratic turnout also was very strong. Polls have continually shown that Democrats are more enthusiastic about voting this year, and that certainly was true last night. Franklin County is the most Democratic part of the district and it had easily the highest voter turnout of any of the seat’s seven counties. It and Delaware County combined to cast over 64% of the vote in the race, a large increase from the 59% the two counties cast in the 2016 presidential contest. People who oppose Trump continue to turn out at much higher rates than those who support him. That will help Democrats in the fall.
This turnout advantage, however, is a double-edged sword for Democrats upon closer analysis.
While high turnout among Democrats and anti-Trump former Republicans is good news for them, the disparity in turnout we saw last night between Democratic and Republican areas is unlikely to be so great in the fall. That’s because November’s election is a regularly scheduled vote for a slew of races, many of which are local and unconnected to Trump. Many reluctant Republicans will turn out to vote for these contests, and in doing so will likely cast unenthusiastic ballots for Republican candidates elsewhere. O’Connor could only come within one point with a strong turnout advantage; that means Democrats running in similarly strongly Republican seats are unlikely to come as close without doing something more.
That something extra is simple: do better with rural former Democrats.
Trump’s large margins in Ohio 12 came from former Democrats who switched parties to back the populist billionaire. Just as Trump did much worse than Romney in the two suburban, educated counties, he ran between 15 and 29% higher than Romney in the seat’s five rural counties. O’Connor’s Republican opponent, Troy Balderson, nearly reached these record high percentages in these places. Had O’Connor lost those areas by only as much as Barack Obama lost them, he, not Balderson, would be going to Washington.
These voters are especially important for Democratic chances to gain control of the Senate. Democrats hold six Senate seats up for election this fall with significant numbers of these “Obama-Trump” voters. Trump won five of those states by margins of 18% or more, well in excess of his margin in Ohio 12. Democratic Senate candidates must do much, much better than O’Connor in reaching these voters if they have a prayer of holding onto their seats.
Democrats also must do better with these voters if they want to flip Republican-held Senate seats. Even if Democrats hold all of the seats they are defending, they must win at least two of three GOP seats that they are seriously contesting. Lose even one of their own seats and they must win all three Republican held ones to regain Senate control. That third seat is Tennessee, a rural, Southern state that Trump carried by 26%, nearly 6% more than Romney won it by. The Democrat’s nominee there, former Governor Phil Bredesen, must do significantly better than O’Connor in reaching Obama-Trump and rural Republican voters to have even a prayer of winning.
Tuesday night’s results were largely good news for Democrats despite their close loss. They should do very well this November if the trends apparent last night carry through to the midterms. But to manufacture a blue wave and really wipe out the Republicans they need to boost their appeal among rural, former Democrats. Do that and we could be looking at historic midterm gains for Team Blue.
Henry Olsen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and he studies and provides commentary on American politics. His work focuses on how to address, consistent with conservative principles, the electoral challenges facing modern American conservatism.