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Ohio special election hurtles to photo finish

Voters rushed to the polls Tuesday to decide the final House special election before the midterms, with Republicans pouring millions of dollars into central Ohio to avoid a demoralizing loss just three months before the November elections.

The GOP cavalry has dashed in to pull its candidate, Troy Balderson, across the finish line in a district that last went Democratic nearly four decades ago. Republican groups have spent more than $ 5 million on TV ads and dispatched top surrogates to the 12th District outside Columbus to rally the base. President Donald Trump, who carried the district by 11 points in the 2016 presidential race, campaigned for Balderson last weekend, a move that Republicans hoped would energize GOP partisans ahead of the vote.

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But Republicans also worried that Trump’s polarizing appearance would alienate moderate, suburban voters long cultivated by GOP politicians like Gov. John Kasich, who once represented the district, which is split between suburbs of Columbus trending away from Trump and rural counties that support him more heavily.

Danny O’Connor, the Democratic special election nominee, has tailored his campaign to win over anti-Trump Republicans and independents, promising not to support Nancy Pelosi for speaker and distancing himself from the more liberal policies gaining favor within his party. But O’Connor is also riding a wave of energy from motivated Democratic voters who hope the Ohio race represents a first step toward winning control of the House of Representatives in November.

“They’re spending like they’re worried, acting like they’re worried, and they should be worried,” O’Connor said in an interview with POLITICO. “If we’re going to retake the House, we’re going to have to win in places like this.”

Meanwhile, voters in four states — Kansas, Michigan, Missouri and Washington — are choosing candidates in primaries for governor and battleground House seats on Tuesday. In several key races, Trump and a rising crop of would-be kingmakers on the left have anointed candidates as part of their political movements.

A woman voting in Georgia is pictured. | AP Photo

Trump’s most explosive endorsement came in Kansas’ Republican gubernatorial primary, where he backed controversial Secretary of State Kris Kobach over sitting Gov. Jeff Colyer, who assumed the governorship earlier this year after former Gov. Sam Brownback joined the Trump administration. The president is also supporting Michigan businessman John James’ long-shot campaign against Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow.

On the Democratic side, rising star Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Bernie Sanders have tried to lift Abdul El-Sayed to the top of the Democratic gubernatorial primary in Michigan. El-Sayed, the former Detroit health director, would be the first Muslim governor of a state if he wins the office in November. Ocasio-Cortez and Sanders also appeared at a recent rally for Brent Welder, who is competing to be the Democratic nominee in a Kansas City, Kansas-based battleground district that features several other contenders.

Here is a state-by-state look at what’s on the ballot Tuesday:


The margin between Balderson and O’Connor has closed to the single digits, according to public and private polling — a split that Democrats say demonstrates the remarkable breadth of the 2018 House battlefield, given that the 12th District has not been competitive in recent memory. But Republicans still think Balderson will be able to gut out a victory in this contested race.

Troy Balderson is pictured. | Getty Images

President Donald Trump campaigned for Troy Balderson last weekend, a move that Republicans hoped would energize GOP partisans ahead of the vote. | Scott Olson/Getty Images

In an effort to turnout the base, Trump and Vice President Mike Pence journeyed to the district. Trump tweeted his closing argument on the district, attacking O’Connor for being “controlled by Nancy Pelosi” and being “weak on Crime, the Border, Military, Vets, your 2nd Amendment – and will end your Tax Cuts.”

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O’Connor, meanwhile, reprised the strategy used by Rep. Conor Lamb (D-Pa.) in his special election victory, rejecting Pelosi and catering to independent voters who are uncomfortable with the president. Balderson acknowledged in an interview with POLITICO that Democrats were “trying to copy the Conor Lamb playbook, but this district is not the same as the Conor Lamb district,” adding that the “candidates are different.”

But both candidates blundered in the final weeks of the race. Republicans attacked O’Connor in TV ads for flubbing an answer on Pelosi in an interview with MSNBC, while Balderson told supporters that they “don’t want somebody from Franklin County representing us” — putting down the largest portion of the district.


Former state Sen. Gretchen Whitmer has long been seen as Democrats’ gubernatorial frontrunner, leading her primary opponents in fundraising and in polling. But El-Sayed’s Sanders-like platform — pro-single-payer health care, anti-special interest money in politics — and support from the senator and Ocasio-Cortez could give him a last-minute boost and set up an upset victory over the establishment-backed candidate. On the Republican side, Attorney General Bill Schuette is expected to walk away with the GOP’s nomination.

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A pair of Republican businessmen — John James and Sandy Pensler — are vying for their shot to take on Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow in a state the president barely won in 2016. Trump endorsed James last week, a big boost that came after Pensler significantly outspent James on TV.

Both parties face crowded primaries in the battleground 11th Congressional District, left open by retiring two-term Republican Rep. David Trott. Lena Epstein, a businesswoman who chaired Trump’s Michigan presidential campaign, led the Republican candidates in cash on hand, but state Rep. Klint Kesto, state Sen. Mike Kowall and former state Rep. Rocky Raczkowski are also running. On the Democratic side, Suneel Gupta, a technology executive, self-funded part of his bid. State Rep. Tim Greimel, former auto bailout official Haley Stevens and Fayrouz Saad, a former Homeland Security official, are also running.

Democratic voters will also decide on new representatives in a pair of open, deep-blue districts. Former state Rep. Ellen Lipton and Andy Levin, attorney and son of the retiring congressman, are battling to replace Rep. Sandy Levin (D-Mich.) in Michigan’s 9th District. A handful of candidate — including Detroit City Council President Brenda Jones, state Sen. Ian Conyers and former state Rep. Rashida Tlaib — are jockeying to replace ex-Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), the former longest-serving member of the House who resigned after a series of sexual harassment allegations.

Michigan is also home to several battleground districts that are expected to be competitive in the fall. Democrat Elissa Slotkin, a former national security officer, is expected to win her primary to take on GOP Rep. Mike Bishop, and Democrat Gretchen Driskell, a former state legislator, is also on track to face Republican Rep. Tim Walberg.


Trump’s intervention in the Republican gubernatorial primary — endorsing Kobach in a tweet on Monday — shook up the race, after he opted against supporting Gov. Jeff Colyer, the former lieutenant governor who took over the job after then-Gov. Sam Brownback entered the Trump administration.

Kansas elections graphic

Some Republicans on the ground hoped Trump would stay out of the primary, as Kobach, an immigration hardliner, could be more vulnerable in a general election, according to recent polling. Democrats have a crowded primary of their own, but despite Kansas’ reliable Republican lean in national politics, the party came close to capturing the governorship over the unpopular Brownback in 2014, and Brownback’s legacy still hangs over the Kansas GOP.

Voters will also weigh in on their nominees for two competitive House seats. It’s a seven-candidate toss-up in the GOP primary to replace retiring Rep. Lynn Jenkins (R-Kan.). Veteran Steve Watkins, state Sen. Steve Fitzgerald and state Sen. Caryn Tyson have led the pack on the Republican side, while Democrat Paul Davis, the former state minority leader and 2014 gubernatorial candidate, ran unopposed and is expected to make a strong run for the seat in the fall.

Three main Democrats — Welder; Sharice Davids, an openly gay attorney; and Tom Niermann, a teacher — are all jockeying for a shot at taking on Rep. Kevin Yoder (R-Kan.) in a top target district that Hillary Clinton carried by 1 point in 2016.


It will be one of the most closely watched Senate races this fall, but the primaries finished out quietly. Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill and Republican Attorney General Josh Hawley, one of the party’s top recruits this cycle, are expected to face off for a state that Trump won by nearly 20 percentage points in 2016.

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Both parties have already invested heavily in the state. Senate Majority PAC, the super PAC aligned with Senate Democrats, has spent nearly $ 8 million in the state, while Republicans have already spent more than $ 5.5 million attacking McCaskill with ads of their own.

In the House, longtime Democratic Rep. Lacy Clay is facing an unusually vigorous primary challenge from Cori Bush, an ally of Ocasio-Cortez who has deployed her playbook, casting herself as a progressive political outsider challenging a long-serving incumbent. But local operatives said it’s unclear whether St. Louis – unlike the Bronx – is primed for a burst of insurgent progressivism.


Republicans must defend 42 open House seats this cycle due to retirements, resignations and some members who opted to run for higher office. But in at least one seat in Washington, Republicans appear better positioned than their Democratic counterparts.

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State Sen. Dino Rossi is essentially running unopposed for the GOP nomination to replace retiring Rep. David Reichert in a district that Clinton won by 3 points in 2016. Rossi is also sitting on more than $ 1.8 million in cash on hand.

Democrats, meanwhile, are fighting it out in a contested, three-way primary, spending their cash to elbow each other out of the way ahead of the general election. A pair of doctors, Kim Schrier and Shannon Hader, are both running, as well as Jason Rittereiser, an attorney.

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