OH-12: a bad outcome, but a good result


Last year I spent a lot of time talking about Ohio’s 12th district. I wrote about how I thought it was possible for a Democrat to win it  and I proceeded to lay out a multipart road map of how, in my view, it could be done.  This despite the fact that the district is sharply gerrymandered to favor Republicans. 

The special election was held tonight and, as I write this, it appears that the Democrat, Danny O’Connor, will not win. There are still uncounted provisional and mail-in ballots, but I suspect that will not be enough and that the Republican Troy Balderson will be declared the victor. 

This is not the outcome I hoped for, but it is is not a bad result.

The GOP has held OH-12 for all but one term in the last 76 years. Since OH-12 was gerrymandered, the Republican has won with a margin of 27-40 points. In 2016, the district went 11 points in favor of Trump, 14 points to the right of the nation and the GOP congressional candidate won by nearly 40 points.

​Tonight, it appears, the Republican will win by a couple of points, max. That is a massive underperformance for the Republican, even when you account for the fact that the seat was open and even when you account for the fact that the GOP holds the presidency and it’s an off-year election, which normally favors the opposition party. The fundamentals of this district — again, massively gerrymandered to favor Republicans — means that it should’ve been a cakewalk instead of the nail-biter that it was. 

Some additional thoughts about this:

As you may remember — and as you can see if you follow the links above — I spent a lot of time last year talking about this race, along with my theory that an economic populist/pro-labor message was the key to winning a district like this one. O’Connor did not run that pro-labor/economic populist race. I’m not second-guessing that. He and his people had access to the data, talked to the voters and made the decisions. My stuff on that was merely speculative. As I wrote last night: it was a strong outcome, even in loss.

That said, turnout was high for an off-year, special election, but still rather pathetic in the grand scheme. I think you address that — and thereby overcome the huge gerrymander disadvantage — by engaging traditional non-voters and that the economic populism does that. As Alexandra Ocasio-Ortez said recently, “the swing voter is not red to blue. The swing voter is non voter to voter. That’s our swing voter.”

There is reason to believe that’s who is necessary to engage in OH-12. I say this because, based on preliminary results, it appears that O’Connor was not turning red voters blue. Red voters stayed home. O’Connor ramped up turnout in the blue parts of OH-12 due to an excellent ground game led by motivated volunteers, but partisan lines generally weren’t crossed. It was a motivation thing. What if new voters were engaged? Voters who, their personal and cultural dispositions aside, had never committed to being active partisan voters? 

This is untestable I suspect. But I likewise suspect that there are thousands upon thousands of people in Licking, Morrow, Richland and Muskingum county — and in Franklin county for that matter — who never vote who might with a new message. A message that speaks to issues which politicians generally don’t speak to and which reaches people who generally are not reached. 

Again, I am not criticizing the O’Connor campaign in this regard. It was a good result even if the ultimate outcome was a loss. But I suspect that’s the absolute limit a traditional Democrat can do in a place like OH-12 given the maximal motivation we saw on the Democratic side and the sorts of election dynamics which we are unlikely to see again any time soon. It was an admirable effort, but one which still fell short. It strikes me that, maybe, one needs a different message to match the admirable mobilization we saw and to break through in a district that has every other dynamic strongly stacked in Republicans’ favor. 

All that aside: for November, it means good things for Democrats nationwide. As of this writing, it appears that OH-12 will have seen around a a 13 point swing toward Democrats over and above the natural partisan lean of the seat. Nationwide, at the moment, it appears that things are swinging about 15 points to the Democrats. Based on those results, it all but ensures a blue wave in November.

I’m sad that the Democrat did not win, bit I am hopeful that this is a harbinger of a strong Democratic showing in November and, finally, a push back against the ruinous path on which Donald Trump and the Republican party has led this country for the past two years. 

Craig Calcaterra

Craig is the national baseball writer for NBCSports.com. He writes about things other than sports at Craigcalcaterra.com. He lives in New Albany, Ohio with his wife, two kids, and many cats.