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September 20th, 2018

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The Trump-Era GOP Faces a Test in Ohio Special Election

Salena Zito

By Salena Zito

Published August 7,2018

The Trump-Era GOP Faces a Test in Ohio Special Election

NEWARK, Ohio — In a special election for Congress, the single most important message to get across is often the date of the election.

"It just might be the most critical thing you leave the voters with," said Wade Rogers, who was with his 15-year-old nephew and wife, Ana Rogers, at the rally Vice President Mike Pence hosted for Republican House candidate Troy Balderson on July 30. For the record, the special election pitting Balderson against Democrat Danny O'Connor and Green Party nominee Joe Manchik is scheduled for Tuesday, Aug. 7.

Pence left no doubt in the packed event hall in the center of picturesque Newark. He repeated the Aug. 7 date no less than a dozen times. He even made the attendees repeat it back to him.

It is a special election, and like most special elections, commentators bill it as an indicator of what is to come in November. How mighty is the "blue wave"? How do suburban Republicans feel about President Trump? And what is the nation's mood overall?

Then again, maybe the election just tells us what is happening in central Ohio at the moment. Maybe we journalists simply overanalyze these low-turnout affairs. It wasn't that long ago that the Democrats won the first seven House special elections in the 2010 cycle and then got trounced in the midterm elections.


The likelihood is high that this Ohio seat will stay Republican (the GOP has held it for 40 years). But it's not guaranteed (Democrats are pumped to show up everywhere). Little polling has been done, and those few surveys show a race that is tightening at the end with Balderson holding a slim lead.

Outside the Pence event, Democratic activists with signs dedicated to every issue imaginable chanted slogans and attempted to engage GOP supporters. One gentleman with a bullhorn chanted, "Balderson hates puppies," at the folks trying to enter.

"The Trump hysteria kind of gets old," Rogers says. "Especially when you walk up here to come in line, the first time you've ever been this political — where we've come to a rally of any sort — and when you hear the opposition over there screaming, 'Troy Balderson hates puppies.' I mean, to me that's people that's out of sync with normalcy."

Rogers, who had never been very political, said he knows what is at stake, not just for this special election but also in November. He addressed the question on many reporters' minds: Is he satisfied enough with the results of the Trump presidency to take the time to vote for a member of Congress not once but twice this year?

"Absolutely," he says with a broad grin. "We need to keep showing up. It's important that the president has a Republican Congress to help pass his agenda for the next two years. You don't take these things for granted."

Ana Rogers is the daughter of a Guatemalan immigrant who came to this country in 1968, served in the U.S. Army and then earned his citizenship. She agreed, saying: "My father, a true patriot to this country, instilled in me the importance of showing up to vote. I have been more than thrilled with this administration, and I understand how important it is to show up for these congressional races."

The Rogers, both 42, have two adult daughters who serve in the U.S. Navy. Neither of them watch cable news television. "Oh, we turned that off a while ago," explained Ana Rogers, who said there is a big world out here not filled with cable news bickering and grandstanding.

Attending alone, Danny Barren was one of many young people packed into the event to hear what the vice president had to say, and to show his support for Balderson. Towering well over 6 feet, the serious-minded biochemistry and theology major at Wittenberg University is also an offensive lineman for the football team and a proud libertarian. The 20-year-old native of Gahanna, Ohio, said he will vote in person for the Tuesday special election and via absentee ballot for the Republican House nominee in the fall. Barren supports Trump's policies but is not so thrilled with his rhetoric. "For me it can get to be a little too much," he said.

Balderson's event could not have been more enthusiastic. The room was packed, and the crowd overflow filled the lobby and spilled out into the streets. As the Pence-Balderson motorcade drove out of town, people lined the square to wave.

When the news hit Thursday that Trump was coming Saturday for yet another rally, observers wondered: Had the race dangerously tightened, and was O'Connor on the cusp of a Conor Lamb-type win? Or did the president just want to drive a sure thing home with an appearance?

We won't know any of those answers until Tuesday evening, and us overanalyzing the results is a given. But one thing is for certain: Trump voters are excited to turn out in Ohio. They understand not just the optics but the policy implications of not turning out — likely more so than the Trump supporters did in previous special elections.

Salena Zito is a CNN political analyst, and a staff reporter and columnist for the Washington Examiner. She reaches the Everyman and Everywoman through shoe-leather journalism, traveling from Main Street to the beltway and all places in between.

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