By John Minchillo/AP/REX/Shutterstock.
Weeks before Tuesday night’s special congressional election in Ohio, Republicans were panicking. Polling showed an alarmingly tight race between Democrat Danny O’Connor and Republican Troy Balderson, despite the millions the G.O.P. had thrown at the district—one that Donald Trump won by 11 percentage points, and which Republican Pat Tiberi easily took in 2016 after spending just $1.9 million. They were right to worry: as of Wednesday morning, O’Connor trails Balderson by just 0.9 percent, a slim enough margin to potentially trigger a recount. Ultimately, it’s more than likely that the district will go red, handing Republicans a victory that’s narrow, but bona fide. Still, the fact that a Democrat nearly flipped the deep red 12th District is a terrifying portent for Republicans who worry they may lose the House in November. Even worse for Republicans were the election results outside of Ohio, which suggest the political calculus behind a feared blue wave may now be impossible to counter.
While Republican operatives seized gleefully on the primary victory of democratic socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York last month, Tuesday’s primaries saw the triumph of more moderate Democrats over less electable, far-left rivals. Throughout the Midwest, insurgent candidates lost congressional primaries by mostly large margins, with Gretchen Whitmer easily winning out over progressive, Bernie Sanders-backed challenger Abdul El-Sayed in Michigan, and St. Louis incumbent William Lacy Clay coasting to victory over Cori Bush. Though progressives had thrown their energy behind primarying traditional Democrats and running on a somewhat controversial agenda—tuition-free college, single-payer health care, and abolishing Immigrations and Customs Enforcement—it seems that they, unlike their conservative counterparts, have largely decided to cut their losses. (“Discourse is not discord,” as Ocasio-Cortez recently emphasized at a conference for the liberal grassroots, easing fears of internecine conflict.)
This is good news for the Democratic party, whose leaders had voiced concerns that more progressive candidates wouldn’t be able to hack it in a general election. While some moderates wrung their hands over Ocasio-Cortez, centrist Democrats running on more realistic compromises, such as expanded Medicare over universal health care, may be palatable both to die-hard progressives and to their non-Democratic counterparts. “This is a fantastic night for centrist Democrats,” Jim Kessler, senior vice president for policy at the think tank Third Way, told The Washington Post on Tuesday. “We nominated the right candidates who can win House seats and governor’s mansions for the Democratic Party. There’s a quiet enthusiasm in the middle. There’s a quiet voice that people are not hearing in the media, but it’s loud at the ballot box.”
Helping them along is Trump, whose endorsements of Balderson and far-right Kansas gubernatorial candidate Kris Kobach—another race that is likely to go to a recount—has made both somewhat toxic. While Trump’s blessing likely boosted their support among the base, summoning the president is a bit like wishing on a monkey’s paw. Democrats, after all, are eager to turn every district battle into a referendum on Trump himself, a man whose public image supersedes political geography. “Trump has been the great doctor,” Washington Governor Jay Inslee, chairman of the Democratic Governors Association, told the Post shortly after Tuesday’s elections, “stitching up our scars and healing us organically.”
Trump, of course, believes the opposite—on Wednesday he took credit for Balderson’s hair-thin lead, tweeting that his endorsement was responsible. If his prior history of endorsing conservative extremists indicates anything, however, Trump’s involvement could come back to haunt him in November. If he generates another scandal between now and election day, every candidate with his imprimatur will have to answer for it.
Still, the president “relishes his role as party kingmaker,” as Axios’s Jonathan Swan reports:
Sources who’ve spoken to Trump say that one of his favorite recent interventions was in Florida, where a Trump tweet sent little-known Rep. Ron DeSantis soaring over his well-respected primary opponent Adam Putnam in the Florida gubernatorial race.
Trump thinks it’s fun to have a stake in these elections, according to sources familiar with his thinking. And he sometimes seems awestruck by the way his endorsements can move a stunning percentage of Republican voters.
Like a knobby-kneed kid burning ants with a magnifying glass, Trump is thrilled by his perceived power over a certain subset of devoted Republicans. If the Republican party loses its majorities in November, the president’s ego may very well be to blame.