So far, the August 7 special election to replace GOP Rep. Pat Tiberi, who resigned in January, hasn't generated the buzz other specials in Georgia and Pennsylvania did. It could be that Democratic activists don't feel the same urgency after Conor Lamb's victory in March, or that neither Democratic Franklin County Recorder Danny O'Connor nor Republican state Sen. Troy Balderson have made-for-TV biographies.
But with three weeks to go, either has a good chance of winning. Both parties believe Balderson holds a mid-single digit lead in the mid-40s: a July GBA strategies poll taken for O'Connor found Balderson ahead 48 percent to 43 percent. However, Democrats' superior intensity, particularly in a mid-summer race that hasn't gotten much national attention, could easily erase that gap.
In some ways, Ohio's 12th CD is a less Republican version of Pennsylvania's 18th CD. It combines the northern suburbs of Columbus, including fast-growing Delaware County, with rural areas and factory towns like Mansfield and Newark. In 2016, it voted for President Trump 53 percent to 42 percent, but is regarded as "Kasich Country." Its 39 percent share of college graduates is the highest in the state.
OH-12 by Trump Vote Percentage
In retrospect, Republicans are pretty fortunate that Balderson, a farmer and auto dealer, defeated Melanie Leneghan in the May primary, 29 percent to 28 percent. Balderson has Tiberi's support and was regarded as the "establishment" Republican, but the Freedom Caucus-backed Leneghan's alliance with former Ohio State assistant wrestling coach and GOP Rep. Jim Jordan would have put the seat in much greater jeopardy.
O'Connor is 31 but looks even younger. In May, he won the seven-way Democratic primary with 41 percent and is something of a "blank slate." He grew up in rural Ohio, graduated from Wright State University and Syracuse Law and only won his current county office in 2016. He lacks Lamb's military resume but is similarly calling for new leadership in "both parties" and pledges he won't vote for Nancy Pelosi.
For several weeks in late June, O'Connor was up with positive ads while Balderson was dark, forcing the GOP-allied Congressional Leadership Fund (which happens to be led by veteran Ohio strategist Corry Bliss) to pick up the slack. The CLF's ads have accused "Dishonest Danny" of "skipping nearly half the meetings we paid him to attend" and packing his county office with "political cronies."
Republicans take Balderson's narrow lead in private polls as a sign that he's "weathered the storm" of O'Connor's ad edge and are confident spending will be more even in the final three weeks. As in Pennsylvania, the DCCC initially took a hands-off approach. But in recent days the DCCC and O'Connor have gone on air hitting Balderson for supporting a "corporate tax giveaway" and saying "I have no problems raising the retirement age."
Republican strategists haven't begun throwing Balderson under the bus (as they did to Rick Saccone in PA-18). But privately, some are concerned Balderson isn't a convincing enough messenger in ads. After a primary campaign in which he emphasized his support for President Trump's wall, Balderson is now up with an ad touting his work alongside Gov. John Kasich to fight human trafficking.
The Columbus Dispatch, which endorsed Tiberi in the past, endorsed O'Connor earlier this month. And O'Connor has benefited from the fact that the race hasn't become a national spectacle like GA-06, where heavy Democratic spending likely woke up a dormant GOP base last summer.
Republicans know it will be a challenge to motivate the Trump base to show up for a mild-mannered state legislator in early August, but are skittish about bringing the president into the district after the PA-18 loss. An alternative could be to look for ways to boost Green Party nominee Joe Manchik, who accuses Presidents Obama and Trump of using drones to "murder innocent children and civilians with American weapons of war."
In the eight most recent House special elections, Democrats have overperformed the typical lean of districts (as measured by Cook PVI) by an average of eight points. Ohio's 12th CD has a Cook PVI score of R+7, meaning it's right on the bubble. Balderson's small edge in polls gives Republicans hope for a small, early August morale boost. But Democrats' enthusiasm edge keeps this race in our Toss Up column.