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Arizona result foreshadows a big special election battle in Ohio

There is little in common between a retiree enclave west of arid Phoenix and a ribbon of urban, suburban and rural la...

Posted: Apr 27, 2018 1:32 PM
Updated: Apr 27, 2018 1:32 PM

There is little in common between a retiree enclave west of arid Phoenix and a ribbon of urban, suburban and rural landscapes north of Columbus, Ohio.

But the unexpectedly tight win for a Republican in Arizona's 8th Congressional District on Tuesday evening has Democrats almost 2,000 miles away eagerly looking towards an August special election in Ohio as a prime opportunity to buck the political status quo yet again and win another special election before November.

"It is obvious that we should compete everywhere, and we can win just about anywhere and that the map is no longer the obstacle," Ohio Democratic Party chair David Pepper said on Wednesday. "All of the sudden, districts you didn't think you could win in, you can win in."

Both parties have had their eye on the race for Ohio's 12th Congressional District for months, according to conversations with multiple Republican and Democratic operatives, and agree that there is a good chance that the contest ends up being as tight, if not tighter, than past special elections.

The area, which has been represented by a Republican for 35 years, is more conservative than districts that include larger parts of Columbus. But one key reason for concern among Republicans is that the Ohio district is far less conservative than the one where Republican Debbie Lesko, a former state senator, bested Democrat Hiral Tipirneni by a slim 5 points in Arizona on Tuesday night.

Where Trump won the Arizona district by 21 points in 2016, he only won the Ohio district by 11 points. That 10-point difference is enough to worry Republicans, who saw last night's results as yet another early warning that the headwinds against the party in this year's midterm elections could be gale force.

"There is no way we don't, as a party, spend money in this race," a top Republican working on the midterms said of the Ohio race. "It will be competitive."

The operative said that they expect the race to be considerably more expensive than the Arizona contest, where primarily Republican outside groups only spent slightly over $1.5 million.

The Ohio vacancy, which was opened when Rep. Patrick Tiberi resigned to lead the Ohio Business Roundtable, has also created a wild and wide-open primary, where at least 17 candidates are running for the Democratic and Republican nominations in next month's primary.

Democratic candidate Danny O'Connor in Ohio, who is backed by more establishment Democrats like Reps. Joyce Beatty and Tim Ryan, said the Arizona election showed the desire for change even in more conservative districts.

"It shows that people want change. Folks want real representation in Washington and it is something I see in every part of this district," O'Connor said on Wednesday, hours after the Arizona race has been called.

Though the Arizona race was different than his Ohio contest, O'Connor said watching Democrats overperform in other states makes Democrats across the country feel like "we are all on in the same boat" and helps voters realize that turning a traditionally red district blue is possible.

"If you are fired up about #AZ08 then join us in the next special election in #OH12," O'Connor tweeted as results ticked in on Tuesday night. "We are building a coalition that is ready to return this country to everyday Americans."

Former sheriff Zach Scott has also launched a bid for the Democratic nomination. Scott unsuccessfully challenged Democrat Andrew J. Ginther for Columbus mayor in 2015, a run that soured top party operatives against him.

John Russell, a Democratic activist who help organize the Indivisible movement in the area after Trump's election, is also running, banking on the support of anti-Trump fervor that animated the post-2016 activism. And Ed Albertson, Democrats' candidate for the seat in 2016 against Tiberi, is running again.

The Republican race, however, may be even more wide open, with powerful Republican outside groups operating a shadow campaign in the congressional district.

The Republican establishment has backed Troy Balderson, an Ohio State Senator, who already has the support of Defending Main Street PAC, a group that began airing ads on cable and digitally across the district earlier this month. The campaign cost $240,000.

Balderson has also been backed by Tiberi, whose principal campaign group, Friends of Tiberi, spent more than $45,000 on radio ads backing the candidate.

But Balderson has faced stiff competition from Melanie Leneghan, a businesswoman who is running as an outsider who has said she will wholeheartedly back Trump's agenda in Washington.

Leneghan has been endorsed by Mark Meadows, chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, and Rep. Jim Jordan, a conservative congressman who represents a district that partially borders Columbus.

Ohio State Sen. Kevin Bacon is also challenging for the seat, as is Tim Kane, an Air Force veteran who is already on air in the district, and Carol O'Brien, a county prosecutor who released her first television ad earlier this month.

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