If Danny O’Connor wins the special election here in suburban Columbus this August, it will be on the backs of voters like his fiancé.
O’Connor and Spenser Stafford got engaged this year and will tie the knot in 2019. The 28-year-old lawyer and lifelong Republican represents the kind of voter O’Connor has to win if he is going to be the latest Democrat to overperform in a special election: White, educated and suburban Republican women who have been turned off by President Donald Trump.
“I’m a Danny-crat,” Stafford said as the couple knocked doors in Clintonville, a hip neighborhood just barely inside Ohio’s 12th Congressional District.
Democratic operatives, in both Ohio and Washington, are hoping the race between O’Connor and state Sen. Troy Balderson will shape up to be a redux of Conor Lamb’s upset victory over Rick Saccone earlier this year.
Republicans argue Balderson, who has the backing of retiring Rep. Pat Tiberi and millions in outside funding, is a far better candidate than Saccone. But the stakes are high for the party: Another special election where Democrats overperform historic norms will be seen as the latest sign that the party out of power is poised to win the House in November.
There are noticeable similarities between O’Connor and Lamb. Both are white men who represent the more moderate strain of liberalism inside the Democratic Party and are trying to represent districts with a Republican tilt that went for Trump in 2016 by, in part, focusing on the need to replace Nancy Pelosi as leader of House Democrats.
O’Connor, who outlasted more liberal Democrats in a seven-way primary earlier this year, sees the similarities and has talked to Lamb since his win. But he also clearly bristles at the idea that he is just cribbing from the Lamb playbook.
“I think that our country is so much in need of a new generation of leaders and he represented that,” O’Connor said in between door-knocking. “We are both not bought and paid for.”
The Ohio district, one that Ohio Gov. John Kasich represented for the better part of two decades, is one Republicans should carry. But the shifting dynamics of the Republican Party and suburban voters distaste for Trump – all exemplified in the Lamb victory – have Democrats upbeat that they could send the President another special election signal in August.
“We are absolutely hoping for a Lamb like win,” Greg Clark, a 68-year old Democratic voter and activist, said at a O’Connor event. “That is what we are looking for. He is the model.”
The Lamb Effect
Lamb’s unexpected victory was a shot of adrenaline for Democrats in red districts that have long been out of reach, proving that a moderate Democrat who pledges to work with Republicans and calls for new leadership in the Democratic Party could win in the Trump era by feeding off the acrimony the President has caused with suburban voters.
Though they have different backgrounds, O’Connor, who is currently the Franklin County Recorder, is looking to do just that.
Young, eager and moderate, O’Connor has turned his upbringing as a Democrat in rural and red Ohio into a pragmatism that has positioned him squarely outside the fiery rhetoric and heated acrimony that has defined Washington for years.
He is pledging to focus on health care, bringing back jobs to the district through infrastructure reform and working with the President if it helps. He is also looking to nationalize the race, hoping for a Lamb-like boost by attention.
“We are used to having the eyes of America on Ohio. We are used to that. Well, they are back,” he told supporters at one of his campaign offices. “And a win could send a hell of a message.”
But he hopes to win by largely avoiding the issues that are animating the leftward flank of the party. While he called the family separations at the border “problematic,” he disagrees with abolishing the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement and says it is important to “strictly enforce those immigration laws.” And while he spends time talking about health care, he is noncommittal on universal coverage.
One issue that he is focusing on is replacing Pelosi as the top of Democratic politics, even putting the issue in his first TV ad of the cycle.
O’Connor derisively refers to Congress as a “debate society” when asked about the infighting and suggests that if he wins in August, he will happily work with Republicans in Ohio and Washington on issues.
“I think we are a much better country than we have let on over the last few years,” O’Connor said. “When we look at our current political system, we just need to be a little more cooperative. We need to sit down and say this is where I am, this is where you are, why can’t we work together?”
As much as O’Connor’s special election will be a test of the blue wave Democrats hope is about to crash, it will also be a test of whether his is a brand of liberalism, one that has worried many in the progressive wing of the party, is palatable for the left of the party.
As O’Connor prepared for his final month-long push of the campaign, he watched voters in New York back Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, the upstart 28-year old Democratic Socialist who upset powerful Rep. Joe Crowley in their primary.
O’Connor shares more in common with Kasich than Ocasio Cortez and even released an ad on Thursday that touts his ties to the Republican.
“I voted for John Kasich the last 3 times, I voted for Trump because I didn’t like the way things were going in Washington, and now I’m supporting Danny O’Connor,” Shannon Ward, a 40-year old mother of two from Delaware, Ohio says in the spot. “John Kasich and Danny O’Connor both don’t worry about the labels of Democrat or Republican, they’re going to get things done either way.”
But over a Coors Lite at Old Bag of Nails Pub in suburban Columbus, O’Connor argued that the party is big enough for both of them.
“We are country that is comprised of so many different types of people and regions,” he said. “Here in the heartland, things may be a little different than they are on the coasts.”
With Trump, not Kasich
O’Connor use of Kasich in a television ad also raises a difficult issue for Balderson, an understated Republican from the district’s eastern reaches in Zanesville, Ohio.
Kasich has noticeably not backed Balderson’s campaign, a fact that the candidate tried to dismiss to CNN by arguing that the race “isn’t about endorsements.”
Shortly after that comment, though, Balderson excitedly said Trump’s endorsement would clearly help him.
“It would be great,” he said from the Marion County Fair. “This community would love to see President Trump here. If we could get him here, that would be great.”
The inconsistency is rhetorical proof of the divide playing out in the Republican Party – and in the Ohio race. To Balderson, Trump is a blessing, Kasich is a drag.
The popular Ohio governor has been the chief Republican critic of Trump and has devoted his final years as governor to protecting his expansion of Medicaid under the Obama-era Affordable Care Act.
Though Balderson says he has a good “working relationship” with the governor, he said that he wasn’t sure his backing would help.
“I don’t know that it helps a lot,” he said. “There are different areas that Gov. Kasich is well received, but I got to run on Troy Balderson.”
Where Kasich hasn’t helped Balderson, a number of Republican groups have.
The Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC backed by House Speaker Paul Ryan, has spent well over $1 million on TV ads to date, according to a spokeswoman, and has opened a field office in the district focused on knocking on doors and get-out-the-vote efforts.
They have branded O’Connor as “dishonest Danny” and Republicans, including the state party, have filled Ohio mailboxes with mailers that cast O’Connor as under the thumb of Pelosi and fully supportive of Hillary Clinton.
“We don’t need liberal puppets in Congress,” reads one ad that shows a limp O’Connor on the end of a puppeteer’s string.
Even as outside groups dump millions in the race, though, Republicans in state hope to avoid turning the contest into a national race, fearing that the attention will elevate O’Connor into a Lamb like figure.
Asked whether he thinks he could be the next Saccone, Balderson dismissed the idea that the races are similar.
“I am focused on the 12th Congressional District,” he said. “That’s it.”