LEWIS CENTER, Ohio—There were a number of moments in President Donald Trump’s freewheeling speech, in a suffocatingly hot high school gymnasium on Saturday night, that broke the humid haze over the crowd, sending them into uproarious cheers.
There was the stretch where he mentioned the high ratings of his favorite Fox News hosts: Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, Tucker Carlson (and lest the president forget Lou Dobbs). There was the hallmark bashing of the other boogeyman networks. There was a riff on former Rep. Mark Sanford (R-SC) and his time on the “Tallahassee Trail,” which was likely a reference to the notorious “Appalachian Trail,” a two-word euphemism for the Republican’s extramarital affair.
But the one that seemed to send the crowd into a euphoric tailspin was Trump inviting Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) onstage.
"Jim Jordan, how great is he?" Trump said. "What a great defender he's been, what courage. He's a brave, tough cookie."
Chants of “Speaker of the House,” erupted from the bleachers as the conservative lawmaker came to the podium.
The president added “I don’t want to wrestle him, he’s tough.”
Jordan is a folk hero to some on the right who views his actions such as seeking the impeachment of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein as all part of a much-needed vociferous defense of the MAGA agenda. But he has come under fire in recent weeks over allegations that he knew of ongoing sexual abuse when he was a wrestling coach at Ohio State University.
While Jordan has denied such claims, they are enough of a lightning rod that his bid for House speakership was weaponized in a recent political ad for Tuesday’s special Congressional election in Ohio's 4th district.
American Bridge 21st Century recently launched an ad criticizing State Senator Troy Balderson, the Republican candidate in Ohio’s 12th Congressional District, for remaining mum on whether he would support elevating Jordan in Congress given the severity of the recent allegations.
But that would not appear to be having the desired effect for the masses crowded in the Olentangy Orange High School gymnasium, dripping sweat from the brims of Make America Great Again hats.
The purpose of Trump’s swing through the area north of Columbus was to boost Balderson—who also appeared with the president onstage—and finds himself in a surprisingly tight contest against Franklin County Recorder and Democratic candidate Danny O’Connor. By most measures it shouldn’t be close. A Republican has held the seat since 1983 and the mix of suburbs and rural counties that elected now Ohio Governor John Kasich and former Rep. Pat Tiberi should be ripe territory for a GOP win on Tuesday.
Yet, a recent Monmouth poll found Balderson leading by a single point. And as Republican outside groups have poured heaps of money into the contest, Democrats have been the aggressors on the message of tax reform, supposedly the banner achievement of the GOP-led Congress. If it feels like déjà vu from another special election this year, in which Democrat Conor Lamb won a shocking narrow victory in Western Pennsylvania, that’s because in many ways it is.
Vice President Mike Pence has been to the district. Donald Trump Jr. has recorded a robocall. And the president himself was there Saturday night, in what he said was “110 degrees” weather, to make sure Balderson got over the line.
In response to the confab, O’Connor’s campaign stayed largely on message, driving home their constant rhetoric on protecting Social Security and Medicare.
“Danny spent all day launching massive volunteer canvasses and speaking to voters across the district about protecting Medicare and Social Security and ensuring that everyone has access to affordable health care,” campaign manager Annie Ellison said in a statement. “That’s what our campaign is about, not petty name calling and outright lies from a politician like Troy Balderson who has made it clear where his loyalties lie, and is desperately trying to distract voters from the fact that he wants to raise the retirement age for Medicare and Social Security.”
By putting himself on the line for candidates like Balderson, the president inherently makes these midterm battles a referendum on his time in office.
“They’re talking about this blue wave,” Trump said, acknowledging the odds, for the moment, seem to be against his party. “I don’t think so. I think it could be a red wave.”
That would have to be the case for a future Speaker Jordan.