The Irish Times view on Ohio’s special election: hope for the Democrats

With just months to go before midterm elections, the result will spook Republican leaders

Democrats are not supposed to have a chance in Ohio's 12th District, a conservative stronghold that Donald Trump won by 11 points in 2016. That makes the nail-biting finish to the special congressional election in the district an intriguing snapshot of public attitudes in the United States. With just months to go before midterm elections which Democrats hope will given them control of the House, the result will spook Republican leaders.

Republican candidate Troy Balderson led his 31-year-old Democratic challenger, Danny O'Connor, by just one percentage point as the count entered the final stages yesterday, and Balderson remained favourite to take the seat. But even a narrow win for the Republicans would cheer Democrats far more than their opponents, giving them confidence that they can pick up the 23 seats required to reclaim the House majority.

Trump's name won't be on any ballot papers in November, but the midterms will be a referendum on his performance in the White House. As things stand, that suits the opposition. In Ohio's 12th District, Republicans spent heavily to save their candidate and enlisted both Trump and vice-president Mike Pence to the cause. And still O'Connor was within touching distance of a famous upset. In a useful lesson to Democrats elsewhere, O'Connor benefited from anti-Trump sentiment, particularly from urban and wealthier voters, but generally avoided talking about the president himself. Instead, he focused on everyday voter concerns, particularly healthcare, while lamenting Washington gridlock and calling for more bipartisanship.

A great deal can happen between now and November. Ominous signs in Ohio and elsewhere will help to mobilise conservative donors and activists, and the republicans will benefit from low unemployment figures and gerrymandering. But it's now clear that the Democrats have a good chance to retake the house. Winning the Senate will be far more difficult, but not impossible. If either turns blue, Trump will face far greater constraints in the second half of his term.