Republicans’ latest special election headache is unfolding in central Ohio, where a chaotic primary has divided the party and stoked fears of losing another seat in Donald Trump territory to Democrats.
The race pits the two wings of the House Republican Conference against each other, going all out to nominate rival candidates. On one side is the scrappy co-founder of the House Freedom Caucus, Rep. Jim Jordan, who is lining up behind Melanie Leneghan, a self-described Trump Republican. Jordan is going up against former Rep. Pat Tiberi, a close ally of GOP leadership who resigned from his seat in January and has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars from his old campaign account to boost state Sen. Troy Balderson as his successor.
A week before the primary, the Club for Growth, a longtime conservative antagonist of business-backed Republicans like Tiberi, is jumping into the 10-candidate race with TV ads attacking Balderson, Club strategists told POLITICO.
It’s the latest in a series of mainstream-versus-outsider battles in Republican primaries around the country. But some of Balderson’s backers say there is more than intraparty politics at stake: They argue that a Leneghan primary win would put the GOP in danger of losing another special election this summer, in a district that’s been held for decades by Republicans like Tiberi and Ohio Gov. John Kasich. Democrats have already flipped a Senate seat in Alabama and a House seat in Pennsylvania in recent months, and House Republicans would dearly love to avoid a repeat in August.
“[Leneghan] is out-of-step with mainstream Republicans that dominate that district, and we’ve got a bunch of candidates dividing up that majority, so we could pick someone who doesn’t represent the district with her pretty extreme viewpoints,” said Matt Borges, the former Ohio Republican Party chairman. “We’re looking at a situation where every seat counts to hang on the majority. We don’t need any self-inflicted wounds.”
Borges added: “I don’t want to see another Pennsylvania-18,” referring to the March special election in southwestern Pennsylvania, where Democrat Conor Lamb beat much-criticized Republican Rick Saccone in a district that Trump carried by almost 20 points in 2016. The president carried Ohio’s 12th District by a smaller margin in 2016, with 53 percent of the vote.
Another national Republican strategist put the situation in Ohio even more bluntly: “If she wins, the seat’s probably gone.”
Jordan dismissed that possibility in an interview with POLITICO, saying, “That’s always what the establishment and the swamp says.
“You’ve got to turn out the grassroots, if you’re going to win a special. So she’s the best one equipped to do that. She’s the best equipped to win the general,” Jordan said.
Jordan compared Leneghan to fellow Ohio Rep. Warren Davidson, the tea party- and Club-backed congressman who won the special election to replace former House Speaker John Boehner in 2016 — and promptly joined the House Freedom Caucus, the group of conservative hard-liners who had forced Boehner from the speakership.
“I guess you could say Melanie Leneghan will actually do what Republicans are supposed to do,” Jordan says in a pro-Leneghan TV ad aired by the super PAC House Freedom Action.
Tiberi took to the airwaves himself days after Jordan’s ad went up, and the former congressman has spent nearly a half-million dollars from his old campaign account to boost Balderson. Tiberi has said he wants “our next congressman to be worthy of the job,” calling Balderson a “conservative fighter who will stand for what’s right, not what’s easy” in his ads.
The former congressman has also invoked the March special election in Pennsylvania when asked about the race to replace him, telling The Columbus Dispatch that “we just saw last month in western Pennsylvania, a seat that Donald Trump won by twice as many votes [in 2016], go to a Democrat because the Republican was too conservative for the district.”
Balderson and Leneghan have often sounded similar notes during the primary campaign. Both promise to “end sanctuary cities” and build a wall on the Mexican border in their ads, and both have pledged to stand with Trump.
They are leading the Republican pack in Tiberi’s old 12th District, according to internal polling shared with POLITICO. But a handful of other candidates still have a path to victory in next week’s primary, including Tim Kane, a veteran and first-time candidate who’s running as an alternative to “career politicians.” Kevin Bacon, a state legislator since 2006, also has name recognition in the district.
“With this many candidates in the field, anything can happen,” said Mark Weaver, a Republican consultant working with Bacon.
But it’s Balderson and Leneghan who have drawn national attention to the primary. Club for Growth President David McIntosh called it an example of an “authentic conservative versus a ‘Main Street,’ but really a liberal to moderate, Republican.” That diagnosis has brought the Club for Growth into conflict with other forces within the GOP in primary after primary in recent years, especially in Republican-leaning House districts where an incumbent has retired. When Tiberi was considering a Senate run in 2017, the Club released polling showing him trailing its favored candidate and later ran ads suggesting Tiberi was “standing in the way” of health care reform.
McIntosh said that his group met with both Leneghan and Kane, and “either would be people that the Club would like to see” in Congress.
The Club for Growth’s late ad in Ohio casts Balderson as “not on Trump’s side” on health care.
“Donald Trump wants to repeal Obamacare,” the ad’s narrator says. “Troy Balderson disagrees. Balderson voted to impose Obamacare on Ohio.”
But Balderson and his allies are not conceding the conservative space to Leneghan. Defending Main Street, a super PAC backed by the Republican Main Street Partnership, which frequently spars with the Club in Republican primaries, is also going negative in the race. Defending Main Street is attacking Leneghan in digital ads, stamping “Fake Republican” across her picture.
“As a township trustee, Leneghan authorized the paving of her own street. What paid for it? Your taxes,” the digital ad says. Defending Main Street has already spent $250,000 in positive TV ads boosting Balderson.
“It is Pat’s seat, so I think he has a good sense of who should replace him,” said Sarah Chamberlain, president and CEO of the Republican Main Street Partnership. “Leneghan is running as the ultra-conservative in the race, but if you look at her voting record, it leaves question marks.”
Republicans are also closely watching the Democratic primary, where several candidates are jockeying for the nomination.
Franklin County Recorder Danny O’Connor, who led the Democratic pack in fundraising, told POLITICO in March that he believes “we need changes in leadership on both sides of the aisle,” a move that mirrors Lamb’s successful strategy in Pennsylvania. Lamb said during his campaign that he would not support Nancy Pelosi for Democratic leader, blunting a main Republican attack line in the conservative-leaning district.