Republicans are claiming a win, Democrats a moral victory, but nothing’s official in the special election to fill an open House seat for the next three-plus months. The race between Republican Troy Balderson and Democrat Danny O’Connor finished in a near dead heat, with Balderson up only 1800 votes in a contest that got over 200,000. It’s close enough to tie both campaigns up in recounts into September:
Republican Troy Balderson had 50 percent, or 101,574 votes, while Democrat Danny O’Connor had 49 percent, or 99,820 votes. But more than 3,400 provisional votes and 5,048 outstanding absentee ballots — nearly quadruple the margin — remained to be counted. State law bars boards of elections from counting those ballots until the 11th day after an election.
The race could be headed to a recount, since state law triggers one if the candidates are within half a percent of each other after the final results are certified, which must take place no later than August 24.
Still, that didn’t stop Republicans from claiming victory Tuesday, including President Donald Trump, who endorsed Balderson and campaigned for him in the district on Saturday.
At this point it’s better to be Balderson than O’Connor, but that could well change. Assuming that all of the provisional ballots end up counting, O’Connor would need to win 60% of the remaining ballots to make up the deficit. That’s not easy but it’s far from impossible, too. Democrats wound up with a big edge in early voting, which Balderson overcame in Election Day turnout. We won’t know for sure until at least August 24th who won, and it might be longer than that.
At the very least, the margin between them is likely to narrow considerably in the process of counting the remaining ballots. According to Ohio law, recounts are automatically triggered when the final margin of victory is less than 0.5% of the ballots cast (0.25% for statewide offices). The margin now (~0.8%) comes close to that trigger level. If this goes to an automatic recount, we might also see a challenge too, based on the recount outcome. That would create a weeks-long mess that could take us to the actual midterm election, where Balderson and O’Connor will have a rematch.
Declaring victory on this thin margin might feel good, but if so only because it clouds the bigger question of why it was this thin at all. With the exception of a one-term fluke in the 1980 election, Republicans have held this seat since 1938. As NBC notes, the GOP held it by thirty-six points just two years ago while Trump won it by 11 against Hillary Clinton. The fact that Democrats even got close is a big red flag less than 90 days out from the midterms.