Buoyed by a dramatic last-minute rally by President Trump, Republican State Senator Troy Balderson appeared to be inching closer to beating back a challenge by insurgent Democrat Danny O’Connor in Ohio’s special election Tuesday.
A victory would deny Democrats the major upset they had sought ahead of the November midterm elections.
Speaking to cheering supporters Tuesday night, Balderson said O’Connor ran a “hard race” and claimed victory. O’Connor has not conceded.
The race remains too close to call, but Balderson maintains a slim one-percentage point lead with all precincts reporting. There are at least 3,367 provisional ballots left to be reviewed. That’s enough for O’Connor to potentially pick up enough votes to force a mandatory recount.
In a tweet Tuesday night, Trump wrote that Balderson had won a “great victory during a very tough time of the year for voting.” The Republican National Committee also claimed victory.
The mood at O’Connor’s campaign headquarters at the Ohio Civil Service Employees Association in Westerville had been optimistic early Tuesday evening as results intially indicated he was significantly ahead in Ohio’s 12th Congressional District. Trump won the district by 11 percentage points in 2016, and it has had a Republican representative for the last three decades.
The race was one of several key contests on Tuesday, but it has garnered outsized attention because several polls showed no real daylight between the candidates in traditionally deep-red district — which some, including Ohio Gov. John Kasich, has said “does not bode well” for the GOP in the fall.
Also, while Kansas, Missouri, Michigan, and Washington state were holding primaries on Tuesday, only Ohio was sending someone to Congress immediately.
Despite the apparent win by Balderson, 57, on Tuesday, the candidates will square off again in less than 100 days in November’s general election. But O’Connor is expected to have much less of a fighting chance — and outside funding — in the fall.
Late Thursday, as it became clear Balderson had a lead with all precincts reporting, O’Connor sounded a determined but somber note in a speech at his campaign headquarters.
“This is a grassroots campaign powered by small donations and people who want the future for their community,” he said. “We won’t rest; we will keep fighting through to November.”
A state Republican party official told Fox News that officials there were “cautiously optimistic” Balderson would prevail early in the evening, citing high turnout in areas like rural Muskingum County that nearly ran out of paper ballots.
Trump may have played a significant role in the reportedly high turnout in the Ohio contest by staging a freewheeling rally in suburban Columbus on Saturday night. In a sweltering auditorium, Trump said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., “controls Danny O’Connor, whoever the hell that is.”
In his tweet Tuesday night, Trump wrote, “When I decided to go to Ohio for Troy Balderson, he was down in early voting 64 to 36. That was not good. After my speech on Saturday night, there was a big turn for the better.”
Described by campaign operatives as a “Whole Foods” district, the largely suburban region features a more affluent and educated voter base than the typical Trump stronghold.
Balderson touted Trump’s help, saying Monday that the president “definitely brought major excitement, and they were excited to see him up here.”
Vice President Mike Pence also campaigned on Balderson’s behalf, saying he has been on board with the president’s agenda.
O’Connor has dominated Balderson on the local airwaves. His campaign spent $2.25 million on advertising compared to Balderson’s $507,000, according to campaign tallies of ad spending. The Republican campaign arm and its allied super PAC were forced to pick up the slack, spending more than $4 million between them.
Kasich, a leading voice in the GOP’s shrinking anti-Trump wing, once represented the district in Congress.
At times, the race has centered on Trump’s tax cuts as much as the candidates. O’Connor and his Democratic allies have railed against the tax plan, casting it as a giveaway for the rich that exacerbates federal deficits and threatens Medicare and Social Security.
Democrats have also hammered Balderson for telling a local newspaper that he would consider raising the eligibility age for Medicare and Social Security.
Balderson and his Republican allies have backed away from the tax plan in recent weeks, training their fire instead on top House Democrat Nancy Pelosi.
O’Connor once vowed not to vote for Pelosi to lead the party again, but later backtracked, saying he would support her if it was necessary to retake the House.
Fox News’ Kristin Fisher and The Associated Press contributed to this report.