LEWIS CENTER, Ohio – President Donald Trump on Saturday implored his supporters to turn out for Republican congressional candidate Troy Balderson, as the party raced to fend off an embarrassing special election loss that could portend a November wave.
During an hour-long rally in a sweltering high school auditorium, the president repeatedly lavished praise on Balderson, a state legislator who suddenly finds himself in a neck-and-neck contest for a House seat that Republicans have held for over three decades.
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“Troy Balderson, he’s the guy,” Trump said before calling the candidate onto the stage.
Looking to gin up the packed crowd, the president described Balderson as “really smart” and a “really hard worker.” And he tore into Balderson’s 31-year-old Democrat opponent, Franklin County Recorder Danny O’Connor, calling him a pawn of Democratic leaders and giving him a Trumpian nickname: “Danny boy.”
“You got to get out, because they want to take away what we’ve given them,” he said, adding that House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi “controls Danny O’Connor, whoever the hell that is.”
Trump’s appearance comes amid mounting GOP fears that they could lose Tuesday’s race for the suburban Columbus seat. While it has long been safe Republican territory, the district — like many others that are filled with higher income and upper educated voters — has trended away from the party during the Trump era.
By dispatching Trump, Republican officials are making a dramatic gamble: that the number of supporters the president will energize into casting ballots for Balderson will more than offset the number of critics he’ll jolt into voting for O’Connor.
Ahead of the Saturday evening rally, some party strategists worried that it would do more harm than good for Balderson, who has campaigned as a mainstream figure. Their concerns were illustrated by a Monmouth University survey released earlier this week showing Trump’s approval at just 46 percent in Ohio’s 12th District, which stretches from the traditionally moderate Columbus suburbs to more conservative rural areas.
Indeed, at many points at Saturday, Trump seemed more focused on revisiting his greatest hits than on Tuesday’s special election. He slashed the media (“MSNBC is so corrupt, is so disgusting”), went after political rivals (recently ousted South Carolina Rep. Mark Sanford, he joked, “likes flamingo [sic] dancers from Argentina”), and ripped the Russia investigation.
But with Trump’s visit, GOP officials said they hoped to address a major problem heading into Tuesday: a voter enthusiasm deficit. As in many other districts this year, Republican strategists fret that Democrats are more motivated to turn out.
Further intensifying their concern is the date of the special election. Many Republican voters, party officials fear, are on vacation or unaware that there is a late-summer election.
Trump, who has sky-high approval ratings among Republicans, remains the party’s best weapon in turning out the conservative base. Much of his speech was geared toward amping enthusiasm for Balderson, a mild-mannered 56-year-old state senator.
“Get your friends, get your neighbors, and get your family” to vote for Balderson, Trump said, adding he was “always my first choice” in the race.
In that vein, the rally was partly aimed at unifying voters around Balderson, who won a bitter GOP nomination fight against a conservative favorite, Melanie Leneghan. GOP Rep. Jim Jordan, a prominent Leneghan backer and House Freedom Caucus member, was among those in attendance, and at one point was called out onto the stage by the president. Organizers chose to hold the rally in Delaware County, a conservative area where Leneghan is from.
Trump’s rally was part of an 11th hour Republican blitz to save the House seat. Vice President Mike Pence campaigned with Balderson earlier in the week and Trump’s son, Donald Trump Jr., recorded a robocall for him. Gov. John Kasich, who formerly held the seat, endorsed Balderson in a TV ad.
The Republican National Committee and Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC closely aligned with House Speaker Paul Ryan, have dispatched field staffers to the district for the final push.
And conservative groups have plowed more $3 million onto the TV airwaves, far outspending their liberal rivals.
The all-out push reflects the high stakes confronting Republicans, who worry that a loss will further rejuvenate Democrats, who see the House majority within reach. Many in the party believe their prospects for holding onto the speaker’s gavel are dimming.
But as he rallied supporters on Saturday, Trump regaled them with tales of how his policies had boosted the nation’s economy. And he appeared to reject the idea that his party was confronting a blue wave.
“I think it could be a red wave,” he said to cheers.