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Trump jumps into Ohio special election as GOP alarm grows

President Donald Trump will travel to Ohio on Saturday to campaign for Republican special election candidate Troy Balderson, according to a senior party official — a move that comes amid rising GOP fears about the race.

A Republican loss, coming after special election defeats in Pennsylvania and Alabama, would be deeply deflating for the conservative base and party donors, and provide more evidence that a wave is building against them heading into the midterms.

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National Republicans have bombarded the suburban Columbus district with more than $ 3.3 million in TV ads in an effort to boost Balderson, a state legislator, and attack his Democratic opponent, Danny O’Connor, ahead of the Aug. 7 special election. They are battling to replace longtime GOP Rep. Pat Tiberi, who resigned last fall.

While Trump has so far focused his campaigning in conservative states, he has largely stayed away from suburban areas, where he’s less popular and the battle for control of the House is largely being fought. The president received 52 percent of the vote in the district in 2016.

While Balderson has led by a small margin in private polling, Republicans worry that an energized Democratic base, declining support among independents and O’Connor’s big fundraising lead puts the seat at risk. The significance of the race is magnified by the fact that it’s the final special election before the midterms.

Both campaigns acknowledged that the results will “definitely set the tone heading into November,” Balderson said in an interview with POLITICO over the weekend.

The rally comes as the president intensifies his political travel schedule. Over the last several months, Trump, who enjoys high popularity among the GOP faithful, has bestowed his endorsement on an array of Republican primary candidates who went on to win the party nomination.

For Trump, the planned Ohio trip follows a familiar pattern. He hit the trail in the immediate days before the Alabama and Pennsylvania special election races in last-ditch — and unsuccessful — efforts to pull Republican candidates over the finish line.

Republican surrogates are flooding into the district. Vice President Mike Pence headlined a rally with Balderson on Monday, and the president’s son, Donald Trump Jr., has recorded a robocall in support of him. Gov. John Kasich, who formerly held the seat, starred in a TV commercial for Balderson, saying that the state senator shares “our common sense values on important issues that face us today.”

Over the weekend, Balderson pointed to Trump and Kasich’s endorsements as evidence that he’s unified the party, after he survived a nasty GOP primary that pit the wings of the Republican Party against each other.

“I don’t know if it’s ever happened,” Balderson said, referring to Trump and Kasich’s endorsements. “But I’m honored to have both of their support.”

Danny O'Connor is pictured. | AP Photo

National Republicans have bombarded the suburban Columbus district with more than $ 3.3 million in TV ads in an effort to attack Danny O’Connor (above) and boost Troy Balderson. | Jonathan Quilter/The Columbus Dispatch via AP

But Balderson and O’Connor have both sought to show daylight between themselves and their party leaders throughout their campaigns. Balderson said that he didn’t support Trump’s child separation policy at the border, while O’Connor opened and closed his campaign with TV ads calling for “new leadership in both parties,” promising to reject Nancy Pelosi as speaker.

O’Connor worked to cast himself as a centrist Democrat, hoping to cut into the anti-Trump Republican voting bloc. He said he does not support a single-payer health care system or abolishing U.S. Immigration and Customs agency. But in an interview with MSNBC’s Chris Matthews last week, O’Connor bungled his response on Pelosi, saying that he “would support whoever the Democratic Party put forward.”

National Republicans seized on the gaffe, airing attack ads on TV that accused O’Connor of being “dishonest,” adding that he “would side with Nancy Pelosi, not you,” the ad’s narrator says.

Tom Steyer is pictured. | Getty Images

O’Connor, for his part, insisted that his comments were “misconstrued” by Republicans and that voters “care more about who the [Ohio State University football team’s] quarterback is this fall more than who the next speaker is going to be,” he said.

Balderson is also lagging in fundraising. O’Connor brought in nearly four times as much cash in the final weeks of the race, according to their final Federal Elections Commission reports submitted last week.

But national Democrats haven’t matched the GOP’s TV spending in the race: The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has dropped just $ 390,000 on TV ads. O’Connor called his own fundraising success a Catch-22, because “when you run as strong of a campaign as we have and you close the gap on your own, folks are going to say, ‘Hey, he can handle it’” on his own.

Ohio’s 12th District stretches from the outskirts of Columbus to farmlands in the central part of the state. It also contains suburban areas filled with the kind of affluent, well-educated voters that Republicans fear are trending away from them as the midterms approach.

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