In Ohio Election, Republicans Test a Midterm Rescue Plan: Polarization

Supporters of President Trump and Troy Balderson, the Republican nominee for Ohio’s 12th District, gathered outside of an event for Mr. Balderson in Newark last week.

DUBLIN, Ohio — Republicans everywhere are confronting an ominous political environment, a Democratic opposition rippling with energy and a president on their own side who is prone to divisive outbursts and policy decrees.

But in a special election for Congress on Tuesday in the conservative suburbs of Columbus, Ohio, their biggest problem might be Deanna Patchett.

Ms. Patchett, 49, a voter in a fastidiously tended golf community, said she habitually backs Republicans, and her chief policy concern is taxes. Yet when a pair of canvassers for the Congressional Leadership Fund, a Republican “super PAC,” knocked on her door on a recent afternoon, Ms. Patchett said she was barely following the battle for a vacant House seat in her area and had not picked a candidate to support.

And Ms. Patchett said her affinity for the Republican Party did not extend to the man who sits atop it.

“We vote Republican,” Ms. Patchett said firmly, standing in the door of her expansive home as an excitable, bearlike dog attempted to barrel past her, eventually succeeding. Of President Trump, she chuckled: “I think he sucks, but I knew that before he was elected.”

Voters like Ms. Patchett are now the focus of a multimillion-dollar Republican rescue operation in Ohio’s 12th Congressional District, the latest in a series of once-secure seats, from Pittsburgh to Phoenix, that the party has defended in special elections since Mr. Trump’s inauguration. The strategy Republicans are using outside Columbus is one they intend to employ nationwide this fall to defend their hold on the House — or, failing that, to keep an incoming Democratic majority as small as possible.

Read more about Tuesday’s voting:

In Kansas, a Trump ally hopes to move the state to the right.

In Missouri, a progressive Democrat hopes to unseat an esteemed incumbent.

In Michigan, Democrats will choose a successor to Representative John Conyers.

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The district is awash in money from Republican outside groups, battering the Democrat, Danny O’Connor, with ads connecting him to Nancy Pelosi, the unpopular House minority leader, and branding him as a vote for higher taxes and lax border security. Republican independent-expenditure groups have poured more than $3.7 million into advertising, outspending their Democratic counterparts more than fivefold. Last Monday, Vice President Mike Pence visited the district’s rural eastern end, where, standing beside Troy Balderson, the Republican nominee, he linked Mr. O’Connor to Ms. Pelosi five times in a roughly 20-minute speech.

And signaling their concern about turnout, Republicans deployed Mr. Trump to carry the attack himself on Saturday. In a speech laced with unrelated personal grievances — including one against Matt Borges, a former Ohio Republican Party chairman who crossed him — Mr. Trump warned that Ms. Pelosi “controls Danny O’Connor, whoever the hell that is.”

Republicans had hesitated over whether to bring in Mr. Trump, fearing he could energize Democrats as readily as Republicans, and the evening before his trip Mr. Trump insulted LeBron James, the basketball star who is a heroic figure in Ohio, on Twitter. But the party ultimately decided to enlist Mr. Trump’s help, and at a rally with Mr. Balderson, he pleaded with conservatives to block a Democratic takeover of Congress.

“They’re going to raise your taxes,” Mr. Trump said of the Democrats. “You’re going to have crime all over the place. You’re going to have people pouring across the border.”

The hook-shaped district, long dominated by business-minded Republicans, might appear to be an unlikely arena for harsh rhetoric and dystopian commercials about gun confiscation and migrant gangs. Mr. Trump and his party have repeatedly wielded those themes in close elections, but with uneven results in areas like this one — an overwhelmingly white but highly educated slice of Ohio where two in five residents have college degrees.

But Republicans say their messaging is intended to polarize the electorate and exploit the national Democratic Party’s leftward shift, jolting complacent conservatives and denying Mr. O’Connor, an easygoing 31-year-old official in Franklin County, the chance to win over disaffected Republicans.

Listen to ‘The Daily’: The Fight for Ohio

Republicans deployed a polarizing message and millions of advertising dollars in an attempt to rescue what used to be a reliably conservative congressional seat.

Some voters welcome the party-first appeals: Dan Abbott, 66, easily identified Mr. Balderson’s most appealing quality.

“He’s a Republican, for one thing,” said Mr. Abbott, a retired contract administrator for a power company, at Mr. Pence’s event last week. “We’ve got to protect President Trump.”

Most polling for both parties has shown a slim advantage for Mr. Balderson, 56, an auto dealer-turned-state legislator with a wooden public demeanor. But Republicans see his position as precarious in a season when Democrats are voting with passionate enthusiasm. And Democratic attacks on Mr. Balderson — for telling a newspaper, The Columbus Dispatch, that he might support raising the eligibility age for Social Security and Medicare — have wounded him.

A Monmouth University poll released Wednesday found Mr. Balderson with just a one-point lead, taking 44 percent of the vote to Mr. O’Connor’s 43 percent.

Corry Bliss, the chief strategist for the Congressional Leadership Fund, a heavily funded group aligned with House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, said its attacks on Mr. O’Connor were a model for Republicans’ national campaign.

“We’ve shown in this race the contrast that candidates have to run on,” Mr. Bliss said. “If the choice is: ‘Do you want to raise middle-class taxes? Do you want to abolish ICE? Do you want Nancy Pelosi as speaker?’ — that’s a debate we’ll win.”

That there is uncertainty about Tuesday’s election to begin with is a source of grave anxiety for Republicans, and even victory might not allay it. The district has elected Republicans to Congress for decades and favored Mr. Trump in 2016 by 11 percentage points, surpassing his powerful margin statewide. If Mr. Balderson prevails, it could offer little comfort to scores of Republicans in more closely drawn districts, where firing up Trump-applauding conservatives would probably not be enough to defeat a Democrat.

Democrats must pick up 23 seats to take control of the House.

Republicans appear sensitive to Mr. Trump’s limitations even in a right-of-center area like the 12th District. Besides attack ads, the Congressional Leadership Fund is also airing commercials showing Gov. John Kasich, one of Mr. Trump’s most implacable Republican critics, praising Mr. Balderson. The message, aimed at white-collar centrists, was late in arriving: Mr. Kasich waited weeks to endorse Mr. Balderson, despite urgent pleas from Republicans including Representative Steve Stivers, an Ohioan who chairs the National Republican Congressional Committee.

And on Sunday, Mr. Kasich argued on national television that the election should be supremely unsettling for his party.

“Suburban women in particular here are the ones that are really turned off,” Mr. Kasich said on ABC’s “This Week,” adding, “It really doesn’t bode well for the Republican Party, because this shouldn’t even be close.”

Democrats running in other tough districts have already taken note of the race, with some seeing its dynamics mirrored at home. Betsy Rader, a Democratic lawyer challenging Representative David Joyce in Northeast Ohio, said she saw cracks in the Republican coalition in her area, a district nearly as affluent as the 12th and somewhat less Republican.

“You’ve got Republicans who are very centrist, very moderate, who are very into international relations and international trade, who are very socially progressive, but they’ve always been conservative on fiscal policy,” Ms. Rader said. “What’s going on now in the Republican Party is the polar opposite of what they believe in.”

The very existence of the special election reflects Republicans’ Trump-induced travails. The 12th District seat opened up not because of death or scandal, but because the previous representative, Pat Tiberi, quit midway through his term to take over a business association, voicing dismay about the status quo in Washington on his way out.

And Mr. O’Connor, the Democrat, has attempted to channel a nonthreatening kind of indignation, trumpeting broadly appealing themes like protecting government-backed retirement benefits, rejecting corporate donations and promoting “new leadership” in Washington.

Mr. O’Connor’s campaign has projected an air of defiance, tinged with amusement, at the onslaught against him. One wall of his headquarters, in a converted clothing store in Columbus, is collaged with brutally negative Republican campaign mail: Two mail pieces show images of armored police officers, with text claiming Mr. O’Connor, who favors stricter gun regulation, supports seizing legal firearms. Another depicts Mr. O’Connor hanging from marionette strings held by Ms. Pelosi.

Echoing Representative Conor Lamb, the upset winner of a March special election near Pittsburgh, Mr. O’Connor vowed early not to support Ms. Pelosi. He said in an interview that, by focusing on her, Republicans signaled their own weakness.

“It tells me they have nothing else to talk about,” Mr. O’Connor said, adding: “I’ve said, time and time again: ‘I won’t vote for her. I won’t vote for her.’”

But in a stumble that delighted Republicans, Mr. O’Connor briefly appeared to put an asterisk on that position late last month. Insisting on MSNBC that he opposed Ms. Pelosi, Mr. O’Connor allowed that he would ultimately back the consensus Democrat for speaker over a Republican on the House floor — a formula that theoretically preserves Ms. Pelosi as an option.

Mr. O’Connor called the television questioning “procedural ‘gotcha’ stuff” and said he remained opposed to Ms. Pelosi. But the error opened the way for Republicans to intensify their attacks.

During his visit, Mr. Pence drew sympathetic groans from a crowd in Licking County, a mainly rural area where the typical household income is about $10,000 below the districtwide average, by declaring in a misleading paraphrase that Mr. O’Connor admitted “he thinks Nancy Pelosi should be the next speaker of the House.”

And the Congressional Leadership Fund has given campaign workers a script instructing them to ask undecided voters whether they would back “Nancy Pelosi’s candidate.”

In Dublin, Ryan Sebastian, a teacher who leans toward Democrats in presidential races, paused at the question from a canvasser. Mr. Sebastian, 41, said in an interview he was uncommitted in the congressional campaign; Ms. Pelosi, he said, was a factor “to an extent.”

But Mr. Sebastian sounded uneasier about Mr. Trump, despite having hoped for the best after his election.

“My thought was, ‘You know what, there are millions of people who are smarter than me that voted for this guy; I hope they’re right,’” Mr. Sebastian said. “So far, I don’t think they are.”

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