(Reuters) - Republican Troy Balderson and Democrat Danny O’Connor were running close on Tuesday in a hotly contested special election in Ohio that became a referendum on U.S. President Donald Trump’s leadership and a chance to gauge Democratic strength ahead of November’s midterm elections.
O’Connor and Balderson exchanged leads as the votes rolled in, with the Democrat ahead by about one percentage point, 50 percent to 49 percent, with about 75 percent of precincts counted in the fight for a U.S. House of Representative seat.
Trump visited the reliably Republican 12th Congressional District in Ohio over the weekend to try to head off an upset in the race after polls showed a tightening battle between Balderson and O’Connor.
Trump charged into the Ohio race, the final special election before November. He visited the reliably Republican 12th Congressional District over the weekend to try to head off an upset after polls showed a tightening battle between Republican Troy Balderson and Democrat Danny O’Connor.
The district, split between suburban Columbus and rural areas, has been represented by a Republican since the early 1980s. Trump carried it by 11 percentage points in the 2016 presidential race.
But O’Connor has wiped out most or all of Balderson’s lead in opinion polls, and a Democratic win would set off alarm bells for Republicans already worried by a series of strong performances in special elections by Democrats in the Trump era.
“A month ago this race was flying under the radar, but it has become nationalized and become more of a referendum on Trump, which really generates Democratic enthusiasm,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute in New Jersey.
A Monmouth poll last week showed the race was essentially a dead heat, down from a double-digit advantage for Balderson a month ago. In addition to more Democrats expressing high interest in the race, Murray said the shift was driven by independents unhappy with the status quo under Trump.
Trump again pushed Balderson in an early morning tweet before voting began.
Democrats must pick up 23 seats in the House and two seats in the U.S. Senate to gain control of those chambers and put a brake on Trump’s agenda. All 435 House seats, 35 of 100 Senate seats and 36 of 50 governors’ offices are up for grabs in the Nov. 6 contests.
Other well-known Republicans also trekked to Ohio, including Vice President Mike Pence. A Republican advocacy group aired an ad featuring praise for Balderson, a state lawmaker, from Ohio Governor John Kasich, a frequent critic of Trump.
Republicans have tried to paint O’Connor, a local county official, as a liberal who would follow House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi. But O’Connor has walked a more moderate line, saying he wants new party leadership in Congress and would work with Republicans, while also criticizing the Trump tax cut.
Michigan, Missouri, Kansas and Washington also hold primaries on Tuesday.
The Democratic race for governor in Michigan offers the next test of the electoral power of the party’s progressive wing, with former Detroit health director Abdul El-Sayed vying to become the country’s first Muslim governor against a more moderate Democrat, former state Senate leader Gretchen Whitmer.
El-Sayed was endorsed by U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders and campaigned recently with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the young democratic socialist whose shocking New York primary upset in June made her a movement star.
In Kansas, Kris Kobach, a conservative prominent in the movement to restrict illegal immigration and pass more restrictive voting laws, is challenging Governor Jeff Colyer for the Republican gubernatorial nomination on Tuesday.
Trump endorsed Kobach, Kansas’ secretary of state, on Monday. Kobach was an immigration adviser to Trump’s campaign in 2016 and was vice chairman of Trump’s commission to investigate voting fraud before the panel collapsed.
Kobach welcomed Trump’s support and likened his race to that of the unorthodox president, whose 2016 White House victory stunned many in the Republican Party.
“This is definitely an establishment insider incumbent versus an insurgent conservative,” he told Fox News on Tuesday.
Reporting by John Whitesides; Editing by Colleen Jenkins, Cynthia Osterman and Jonathan Oatis