Ohio's 12th District, Long A GOP Stronghold, Tests Trump Support In Suburbs
Rep. Troy Balderson (R-Ohio) was on hand to introduce Vice President Mike Pence at an event in Columbus earlier this month. Dustin Johnson and Ashley Dollar showed up to sell buttons.
Their sweatshirts are covered in them—one for $5 or three for $10. Dollar says the ones with guns sell best.
“The gun rights, Second Amendment for sure,” Dollar says. “This is the one they buy a lot.”
“Oh, most definitely,” Johnson agrees. “I think everybody supports the Second Amendment.”Outside, a handful of protesters with signs mingle with the other souvenir sellers. Inside, supporters mill around beneath massive American flags and a steady soundtrack of patriotic country and pop.
As he takes the stage, Balderson calls out, “Four more years!” and the crowd echoes it back enthusiastically.
Balderson’s road to Congress was a bit unusual. In 2018, he narrowly won a special election to fill a vacancy in Ohio's 12th Congressional District left by the resignation of Republican Pat Tiberi. Three months later, he was on the ballot again.
Despite a nationwide “blue wave” of voters bucking the presidential administration and backing Democrats, Balderson hung on to his seat, as Republicans swept almost very statewide office in Ohio. Now, in Balderson's third contest in two years, national politics are again exerting a heavy influence on the race.
“There’s more we’re going to get done, and together with Vice President Pence and President Trump, we’re working to make sure our country beats this virus once and for all,” Balderson tells the crowd.
In a phone call this September, Balderson repeatedly stressed how cautious participants are at his campaign events. But the crowd Balderson addressed was largely unmasked, and made no serious effort to maintain social distancing – which has mostly been the trend at Republican events this fall.
In contrast, everyone wore a mask at a Women's March event in Delaware hosted by his opponent. Bullhorn in hand, Democrat Alaina Shearer led a group of about 50 along a few blocks of downtown sidewalks. They got some puzzled looks, but plenty of cars honked their horns in support, too.
Shearer is a first-time candidate. Her background is in marketing, and she also started a national network for women in tech. While Balderson defends the president’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, Shearer says that might be the biggest issue pushing voters to her side.
“I mean, this has wrecked everyone’s lives in one way or another,” Shearer says. “I don’t care what income level you’re at, what age you’re at, it has obviously rocked our world, and that’s the repeated, ‘wow, how could there be no collective response?’”
Most of Shearer’s campaigning has happened online. She often gets questions that reflect national politics, like, "Where do you stand on socialism?" That tickles her: she has started two businesses.
But like the couple selling buttons, Shearer says guns are a hot topic as well. She says her family owns firearms, and when it comes to policy, she’s looking for consensus.
“We all agree on universal background checks,” Shearer says. “A heck of a lot of us agree on red flag laws, and you know enforcing those, especially in domestic situations where women are usually the victims of those crimes. And if we start there where we agree, we get through to the other side.”
Ohio State University political scientist Herb Asher says Balderson has the edge, as an incumbent with two races under his belt already. But he says the final result will likely come down to a simple question.
“Balderson is sort of at the mercy of, well, how badly does Trump’s support collapse in the district?" Asher says. "And how does that impact Balderson?”
Asher highlights voters in suburban communities like Worthington or Westerville that were long seen as Republican strongholds. That dynamic wasn’t enough for Democrat Danny O’Connor to win the district last cycle, however.
O’Connor currently serves as Franklin County Recorder. When it comes to the races in 2018, he doesn’t see any glaring strategic failures in his campaign. He says they actually surpassed their turnout targets by thousands – Republicans just did better.
O’Connor doesn’t dismiss the party’s emphasis on suburbs, he just argues it’s not enough.
“I’m a small town Democrat from rural Ohio, and I do not want to see my party cede those areas to Republicans,” O’Connor says. “Whether it’s because we’re not comfortable going to those places, or because we’re not talking about working families as much as we need to, I think we need to do a better job of that.”
Those rural areas account for more than a third of the 12th District’s votes, and it’s where Balderson has pressed his advantage. In 2018, he won every county but Franklin—most of them by 60% or more.