Republican Troy Balderson's razor-thin apparent victory over Democrat Danny O'Connor in yesterday's special election in Ohio's 12th CD comes as a big relief to Republicans, including neighboring NRCC Chair Steve Stivers and the Congressional Leadership Fund, which spent $3.1 million to defend the seat. But the outcome doesn't alter Democrats' status as substantial favorites to win House control in November.
To put the result in context: there are 68 GOP-held House seats with a Cook PVI score less Republican than the 12th CD's (R+7), and 119 GOP-held House seats less Republican than Pennsylvania's 18th CD (R+11), where Democrat Conor Lamb won in March. Democrats only need to net 23 seats to win the House in November.
In a neutral political environment, Ohio's 12th CD wouldn't have been competitive. Republicans redrew it in 2011 to be a safe seat, President Trump carried it by 11 points in 2016 and the party holds a two-to-one voter registration edge there. Yet Balderson appears to have hung on by a single point, the same margin as in the May GOP primary where he beat a Jim Jordan-backed candidate who probably would have lost to O'Connor.
Stivers, the NRCC and the CLF deserve credit for eking out a victory. But the granular results show Balderson probably owes his win to a late endorsement ad cut by GOP Gov. John Kasich, not a late rally by President Trump. Balderson held onto a solid nine-point margin in wealthy suburban Delaware County, Kasich's base, where turnout was high. But turnout was abysmally low in the district's most pro-Trump rural counties.
Ohio's 12th was the final House special before November. On average, Democrats have overperformed their typical share of the vote by eight points in the past nine special elections where both parties have appeared on the final ballot. If that pattern were extrapolated to every race in the fall, Democrats would pick up 81 seats (that won't happen, because Republicans enjoy an incumbency advantage in most of their seats).
Despite O'Connor's apparent loss, Democrats can take heart that their enthusiasm edge was on display: raw votes cast in heavily Democratic Franklin County were at 60 percent of 2016 levels, compared to just 46 percent in Morrow County, the most heavily GOP area. Perhaps even more ominously for the GOP, Democrats turned in impressive numbers in the preliminary returns Washington State's top-two primary, including the 3rd, 5th and 8th CDs.
We're changing our ratings in five districts based on last night's results. As always, check out our full House ratings here.
KS-02: OPEN (Jenkins) | Lean R to Toss Up
KS-03: Yoder | Lean R to Toss Up
OH-12: Balderson | Toss Up to Lean R
OH-15: Stivers | Likely R to Solid R
WA-03: Herrera Beutler | Likely R to Lean R
Updated Bottom Lines
KS-02: OPEN (Jenkins) (R) - East: Topeka, Lawrence
Toss Up. President Trump carried this eastern Kansas seat 56 percent to 37 percent, but it's turned into a genuine GOP concern. Former state House Minority Leader Paul Davis, who carried the 2nd CD by six points in his race against GOP Gov. Sam Brownback, has the Democratic side all to himself and has stockpiled $893,000. And Army veteran Steve Watkins emerges from the GOP primary with plenty of detractors in his own party.
Watkins emerged from the Republican primary with 26 percent to 23 percent for state Sen. Caryn Tyson, 16 percent for state Rep. Kevin Jones and 12 percent each for state Sens. Steve Fitzgerald and Dennis Pyle. Watkins raised the most money ($640,000), and some Republican strategists are convinced he's the best-funded and least ideological candidates the GOP electorate could have nominated. But he also attracted the most controversy.
Watkins grew up in Topeka, graduated from West Point, and served in Afghanistan. He left the Army in 2004 to become a defense contractor and proceeded to travel the world. But the Iditarod racer and Mt. Everest climber didn't move back to Kansas until last year. He allegedly spoke with Democratic officials about running in 2017 and is getting help from a Super PAC, "Kansans Can Do Anything," set up by his father, a Topeka physician.
In an ordinary year, it would be all too easy for Watkins to disqualify Davis as a "liberal Lawrence lawyer." And Davis doesn't have the luxury of running against an unpopular Brownback as he did in 2014. But he has the luxury of a financial head start and an opponent who hadn't voted in Kansas until this cycle. Moreover, it's possible Secretary of State Kris Kobach could be a drag on the GOP ticket if he prevails in the tight primary for governor.
Despite its rural character, there's a precedent for this seat going Democratic in a wave: populist outsider Nancy Boyda pulled off an upset here in 2006. Republicans likely need to keep this seat to hold their majority, but it's in the Toss Up column.
KS-03: Kevin Yoder (R) - East: Greater Kansas City
Toss Up. As one of just 25 House Republicans sitting in a district Hillary Clinton carried in 2016 (if only by a point), Yoder has always had a target on his back. But Democrats have struggled to coalesce behind a nominee who could appeal to moderate GOP voters in highly college-educated Johnson County. It's still unclear how strong a nominee Democratic attorney Sharice Davids will be, but Democrats likely avoided their worst-case scenario in the August primary.
Davids, a Native American, lesbian and former MMA fighter who was raised by a single mother in nearby Leavenworth, has an unconventional background to say the least. But with EMILY's List's backing, she defeated former Bernie Sanders campaign worker Brent Welder 37 percent to 34 percent, even after Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez rallied for him. Teacher Tom Niermann, who didn't have as much outside help, took 14 percent.
The barrier-breaking aspects of Davids's candidacy will energize elements of the Democratic base, but her upbringing and politics (she expressed skepticism towards single-payer) could allow independent voters to see her as an acceptable vehicle to send a message to President Trump. Welder, on the other hand, became a darling of out-of-state Sanders activists and had just moved to Kansas from St. Louis last year.
Republicans will no doubt seize on the time Davids has spent outside the state, including attending law school at Cornell University and her activism on Indian Reservations across the country (she's a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation in Wisconsin), as evidence she's an elitist with her own agenda. But Democrats will be able to attack Yoder's voting record on healthcare and taxes, and try to tie him to potential GOP gubernatorial nominee Kris Kobach.
The bigger surprise might have been the GOP primary results here: Yoder took an underwhelming 68 percent against two opponents who hardly spent any money. At least one Kansas observer attributes his weak showing to blowback against a late July amendment he sponsored in the 2019 appropriations bill designed to overturn Attorney General Jeff Session's new policy on asylum claims. Breitbart described it as "catch-and-release language."
Davids may not be the ideal, pro-business moderate that has proven a winning formula for Democrats here in the past. But in a district Clinton won and in year like 2018, that may matter less. Private polling on both sides has shown Yoder struggling all year. He joins the Toss Up column.
OH-12: Troy Balderson (R) - Central: Columbus north suburbs, Mansfield
Lean Republican. At this writing, state Sen. Troy Balderson holds a 1,754 vote lead over Democrat Danny O'Connor with 8,483 ballots (including 5,048 mail-in absentees and 3,435 provisionals) outstanding. But not all of those ballots will be returned or ruled valid, and O'Connor would have to win them by a much larger margin than other mail-in absentees and Election Day votes to put a serious dent in Balderson's margin.
If O'Connor couldn't win this race in a low-turnout August special, it's difficult to see how he would beat Balderson in the fall. Not only will Balderson be the incumbent, but O'Connor won't have the national spotlight to himself to raise money. Republicans used a late interview in which O'Connor waffled on whether he'd vote for Nancy Pelosi for Speaker against the 31-year old Franklin County Recorder. As long as he holds on, Balderson is the favorite in the fall.
OH-15: Steve Stivers (R) - Central: Columbus west suburbs, Lancaster
Solid Republican. NRCC Chair Steve Stivers emerged as a winner from the OH-12 special election in more ways than one. If Democrat Danny O'Connor couldn't win a neighboring district with an identical PVI (R+7) in a low-turnout August special election, it's hard to see how Democratic former international aid worker Rick Neal will beat Stivers. The 15th CD gave President Trump a 16 point margin in 2016, five points higher than his 11 point margin in the 12th CD.
There was some talk that Neal, whose husband's family owns the well-known Donatos pizza chain, would self-fund to a degree that would force Stivers to pay more attention back home. But at the end of June, Neal had $503,000 on hand (including a $275,000 personal loan) to Stivers's $2.4 million. That's not going to cut it against Stivers, an Iraq veteran who won reelection with 66 percent of the vote in 2016, even in a wave.
WA-03: Jaime Herrera Beutler (R) - Southwest: Vancouver, Longview, Centralia
Lean Republican. Herrera Beutler has generally been popular in this traditionally purple district. She was the subject of favorable news coverage after her daughter was born without kidneys and survived the typically fatal condition in 2013. She also has a relatively moderate voting record, including voting against the GOP's healthcare bill last May. But she sits in a substantially suburban seat President Trump won just 50 percent to 43 percent in 2016.
Herrera Beutler hasn't had a real race since 2010, but the preliminary August 7 top-two primary results are a wake up call: she took just 41 percent to WSU-Vancouver law professor Carolyn Long's 37 percent. Overall, Democrats are currently combining for a narrow majority of primary votes. Long had raised $662,000 to Herrera Beutler's $1.5 million by mid-July. This onetime long shot has developed into a genuinely competitive race.