Democrats’ optimism over major midterm election gains this November was bolstered in a series of primaries on Tuesday, despite a disappointing loss in a special race for a heavily Republican Ohio congressional district.
In the Ohio race, Republican Troy Balderson defeated Democratic challenger Danny O’Connor by fewer than 2,000 votes in a district where President Donald Trump and major Republican figures campaigned and the party and outside groups poured millions of dollars into the race. Initially it wasn’t supposed to be a contest; Trump carried the district by double digits in 2016, and the former congressman, Pat Tiberi, who resigned this year, won in a landslide.
O’Connor, who may run again in the November race, given the closeness of the Tuesday’s vote, fell short primarily because he only ran a little better than Hillary Clinton did in the upscale Delaware County suburbs. To win in November, he’d have to perform better there.
Democrats say running this close in such a difficult district augurs well for them in several dozen friendlier venues this November; they need to pick up two dozen seats to win control in the House.
Elsewhere the news was almost all good for Democrats. They nominated stronger general-election congressional candidates, defeating Bernie Sanders-backed left-wingers, in two competitive districts, one in Kansas, the other in Michigan. And based on Tuesday’s results in Washington state, Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers, a member of the House Republican leadership, may be in trouble this fall.
In Michigan, the top of the Democratic ticket looks strong, and in Kansas Democrats were praying that the right-winger Kris Kobach would win the Republican nomination for governor because he could weaken the entire GOP ticket in the November election.
Trump has boasted of big personal victories as he endorsed Balderson and a few other successful candidates, as well as Kobach. But there are more indications that he creates a dilemma for a number of Republican candidates. If they stray from him, they turn off the sizable Trump base; if they’re too close, it alienates independent-minded swing voters. The main recourse then may be to go negative.
That strategy may be weakened by the losses of left-wing Democrats in competitive congressional seats held by Republicans. This continues a trend throughout the primary season. For all the focus on Bernie Sanders’s clout among Democrats — attention fueled by Republicans — dozens of mainstream Democratic candidates have defeated challengers who advocate totally government-run health-care systems. In contrast the left has only won two or three of these primary contests.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who pulled off one of those victories by knocking off senior Democrat Joe Crowley in a Bronx district, and Sanders campaigned together for Brent Welder, a labor lawyer, who was running in a Kansas City, Kansas, district. But he was narrowly defeated in this suburban district by Sharice Davids, who national Democrats consider a stronger candidate to take on the four-term Republican incumbent, Kevin Yoder, in a district that Hillary Clinton carried by a point in 2016.
Likewise, in Michigan, Democrat Haley Stevens won, with a Sanders backer finishing a distant fourth, in the suburban Oakland County district. Trump carried the district by four points but the incumbent Republican, Dave Trott, is retiring, and the seat is seen as a pickup opportunity for Democrats. Stevens, who worked for Barack Obama and was endorsed by Hillary Clinton, will face Lena Epstein, who was co-chair of Trump’s 2016 Michigan campaign. Republicans were cheered that their voter turnout was slightly higher yesterday in the district than the Democrats’.
Democrats may be helped in Michigan by the top of the ticket. Gretchen Whitmer, a former state legislator, won the party’s nomination for governor. She is considered a slight favorite over the Trump-backed Republican, Attorney General Bill Schuette, in the general election. And Democratic incumbent Senator Debbie Stabenow will be favored over John James, an African-American businessman and Trump supporter, who won the Republican nomination.
Republicans may have given Democrats a gift in Kansas, if Kobach, the state’s hard-right secretary of state, hangs on to his slim lead, as reported. He’s a harsh anti-immigration advocate and Trump ally who ran a widely discredited voter-fraud commission.
There is fear in Republican ranks that Kobach could lose the general election and drag down other GOP candidates in Kansas. In addition to the suburban Kansas City seat, Democrats see a good pickup opportunity in a district that covers Topeka and the university town of Lawrence. The incumbent is retiring.
Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He was the executive editor of Bloomberg News, before which he was a reporter, bureau chief and executive Washington editor at the Wall Street Journal.