Democrat Danny O’Connor Tries to Do the Impossible in an Ohio Republican Stronghold

The young candidate has momentum, but can he overcome the district’s strong GOP lean and the party’s rallying of the troops for his opponent?

Jonathan Quilter/The Columbus Dispatch via AP

MANSFIELD, Ohio—Danny O’Connor didn’t catch what the president had to say about him on Saturday night. At least, not until Sunday. The 31-year-old Catholic with a boyish face was in church when Donald Trump came to town to hold a boisterous rally in a humid local gymnasium for O’Connor’s opponent State Senator Troy Balderson.

And on Sunday morning, the Franklin County Recorder found himself in church again—three different ones to be exact—delivering a closing message to the residents in this city located smack dab between Cleveland and Columbus.

“I think that we have too much division in our country,” O’Connor said from the pulpit of Maddox Memorial Temple, where a predominately African-American group of worshippers had gathered. The congregation swayed and sang on carpeted pews facing a pulpit with the backdrop of a stained glass Jesus Christ, before O’Connor was brought in with his fiancee to join the service.

“We have folks who are focused on dividing and conquering and not getting stuff done for normal folks. And that’s a problem. Because we need to send people to Washington who are committed to having a servant’s heart.”

Without naming names, it’s apparent that this source of division largely stems from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, at least in the minds of Democratic voters in Ohio’s 12th Congressional District. And it’s his very presence that has created the permission structure for voters who consistently punch Republican to consider voting for a Democrat in the year’s last special Congressional election before November’s midterms.

A C-shaped mass of land that stretches from Zanesville in the East to the edge of Richland County north of Columbus, the 12th District has sent a Republican to Washington D.C. since 1939, with a two-year break after a Democrat was elected in 1981. A mix of wealthier suburbs and rural areas, this seat was home to Republican Governor John Kasich and former Rep. Pat Tiberi (R-OH), whose retirement sparked this early August contest.

But there’s substantial evidence that what would ordinarily be a breeze for the Republican party is turning into a squeaker—a familiar happenstance for any casual observer of recent elections in Alabama and Pennsylvania, to name two.

A recent Monmouth University poll found the race as an essential toss-up depending on voter turnout and determined that the president’s approval rating stood at 46 percent in a district he won by 11 points in 2016. Part of what closed the gap was a significant rise in Democratic enthusiasm, a trend that is seemingly taking place nationwide as the barrage of chaos from the White House has led liberally-inclined voters to flock to the polls in other congressional and state legislative races.

That enthusiasm was on display Sunday. After church, O’Connor met with voters who had already cast ballots for him at Johns Park and encouraged others to do so as soon as possible. Volunteers drove buses for a “Souls to the Polls” operation and O’Connor, having dropped the suit for khaki shorts to beat the summer heat, made small talk with a young girl about how many hot dogs the two of them could eat and swung a jump rope for a group of kids on the grass.

Thea Crowley and Alexia Kemerling, both 20-year-old college students originally hailing from the area, had already voted, feeling that this was the first time since Trump’s election that they could do something “concrete” to take a stand against his administration.

“The 2016 election was our first chance to vote,” Crowley told The Daily Beast. “And that result was kind of scary, as like your first time voting.”

Kemerling characterized the environment under the current president as “fighting not to move backwards.”

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“It’s really really frustrating,” she said.

But Republicans are hopeful that the president’s last minute rally, plus a recent visit from Vice President Mike Pence and a robocall from Donald Trump Jr., are enough to animate a base of voters in a district still enamored with Trump. During Balderson’s appearance onstage with Trump on Saturday night in a high school gym in Lewis Center, he highlighted the strength of the economy and told voters he’d be a valuable ally for the president.

"I'm going to fight alongside him to continue this economic success, I promise,” the GOP candidate said.

Balderson’s candidacy also presented a rare opportunity for Kasich and Trump to agree on something, years after the man who became president said the Ohio governor ate in “such a disgusting fashion” and mimicked him shoving pancakes into his mouth.

That shaky alliance, one which could prove vital for suburban Republicans turned off by the president’s policies and behavior, seemed to be fracturing come Sunday morning.

Kasich, who is often rumored as a potential 2020 primary challenger against Trump, said on ABC’s “This Week,” that Balderson told him he did not invite the president to campaign for him. Then Kasich dug in even further, saying that the closeness of the race could be a byproduct of Trump himself.

“The chaos that seems to surround Donald Trump has unnerved a lot of people,” Kasich said two days out from the election. “So suburban women in particular here are the ones that are really turned off. And you add to that the, you know, millennials, you—you have it very close. It’s really kind of shocking because this should be just a slam dunk and it’s not.”

Meanwhile, in recent weeks, the GOP-led Congress’ banner achievement of tax reform, had all but disappeared from the scores of ads pouring into the district. Instead, the Congressional Leadership Fund, a PAC closely aligned with House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI), launched an ad buy seeking to tie O’Connor to Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) saying that they want to open “America’s doors to more crime and drugs.” Democrats on the other hand, have been the aggressors on the message of the tax legislation characterizing it as a “corporate tax giveaway.”

As of Sunday night, CLF has spent over $3 million on the race, with the National Republican Congressional Committee investing more than $1.3 million and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spending nearly $630,000. A major focus of the Republican campaign against O’Connor is the perception that he, or any other Democrat in the nation, would be closely allied with Pelosi, a much-maligned figure among conservative voters. A similar tactic, and progression of ads, was used in another high-profile special congressional election earlier this year in Pennsylvania’s 18th District, where Democrat Conor Lamb overcame an even larger 2016 Trump victory margin and a gerrymandered map to eke out a narrow victory.

Republican operatives saw a golden opportunity to drive the Pelosi message home after O’Connor said he would “support whoever the Democratic Party puts forward,” during a recent MSNBC interview after campaigning on the need for new leadership. His campaign put out their own ad days after reasserting that O’Connor wants to see new people in power on both sides of the aisle in Congress.

But as he traverses the district, from churches with gospel choirs of women dressed in white to picnics and suburban door-knocking, O’Connor says he hasn’t been asked about the machinations of Democratic congressional leadership.

“No one is like my number one issue is 'who you’re going to vote for for Speaker,' ” O’Connor, who would be among the youngest members of Congress, said in an interview at a campaign headquarters on Sunday. “It’s inside baseball. People bring up health care, they bring up earned benefits. That’s a big one. They bring up education costs. They bring up firearms. They bring up a lot of things. They don’t bring up that.”

Seated next to his fiancée—who, O’Connor has mentioned on the trail, is a Republican—the Democrat characterized Washington as a broken place with two parties sniping at each other all to the disservice of constituents. It’s an age-old political line that has been a hallmark of too many campaigns to count.

While his stump rhetoric is primarily geared around protecting Medicare and Social Security and drawing contrasts with Balderson on positions such as taxes and guns—O’Connor thinks the overall tax reform package favors corporations over the middle class and he supports “red flag” laws which would deny gun access to individuals who are dangers to themselves or others—he claims that if he served the district in Congress, he’d be happy to find areas to work with the president including infrastructure and combating the opioid epidemic.

The olive branch comes even though the president has taken to calling him names, including “Danny Boy,” which O’Connor said his mother also called him.

“It doesn’t bother me,” O’Connor said. “If he agrees on point A and I agree on point A about something, I’ll put aside any partisan petty name-calling for the good of the people in this district. Honest to God. Because it’s my job to take punches. It’s my job to take the heat.”

While there is outside significance to this special election contest, and what it could say about the tenor of the nation going into the midterms, the irony is that if O’Connor wins on Tuesday, he’d have to turn around and run again in the November race.

“It’s like March Madness,” he said about the endless campaigning.

The small stakes of one person out of 435 winning a three-month seat in the House of Representatives, has obviously not stopped Republicans and Democrats alike from viewing this race in hyperbolic terms.

“It would be a political earthquake,” Rep. Tim Ryan (D-OH) said in a phone interview, should O’Connor prevail. “I would not want to be in the Republican leadership after that. But even the fact that we are in the game, it shows how dysfunctional the Republican Party is at this point.”

Even as O’Connor at least appears to be taking the national spotlight in stride, he is acutely aware of what an upset on Tuesday would signify.

“This is the last one in the country and this can set the tone,” he said, referring to the host of special elections that have taken place during the Trump administration.

“If we send a message that “Hey, Washington, watch out: People are upset, in every community, rural, urban, suburban, people are sick and tired of inaction and they want new leadership,” O’Connor said. “I’m hopeful that we send that message.”