WASHINGTON –Tuesday's special congressional election in Ohio is the final direct face-off between Republicans and Democrats before the November mid-terms, and President Donald Trump's party is holding its breath. The seat was supposed to remain safely in Republican hands.
But Democrats who anticipate their grassroots activism propelling a "blue wave" this year see a genuine shot at flipping a district long held by the GOP, and sending a message that Trump's brand of attack politics is in trouble.
Republicans control both the Senate and House of Representatives, but in a time of swirling frustration with the commander-in-chief, including from within his party, Trump is worried that any dent in the GOP hold on Congress could hurt its ability to push through his agenda, and expose him to Democratic efforts to oust him from power.
In recent weeks he has made several campaign appearances ahead of state primaries, endorsing candidates for Congress and governor and imploring his supporters, as he did in Ohio on Saturday night, to get out and vote.
Pollsters rate the Ohio race between Republican state senator Troy Balderson and 31-year-old Democratic lawyer Danny O'Connor as a toss-up. In a swing state that Trump won by eight points in 2016, Balderson's 10-point lead from June has evaporated.
"Ohio, vote today for Troy Balderson for Congress," the president tweeted Tuesday morning, saying that O'Connor "is weak on Crime, the Border, Military, Vets, your 2nd Amendment - and will end your Tax Cuts."
An O'Connor victory in the race to succeed retired GOP congressman Patrick Tiberi in a wealthy suburban district that has voted reliably Republican for decades would be a massive shot in the arm for Democrats seeking to take back the House.
"The fact it's a dead heat indicates Republicans all across the country are in trouble," University of Akron professor of political science David Cohen, who has studied elections for two decades, told AFP on Monday.
"That Dems are even competitive in Ohio's 12th district is an indication that the blue wave may in fact be coming" in November.
- Blue or red wave? - Experts including those at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report say the Republican challenge of holding their House majority is looking increasingly difficult. Democrats need to flip 23 seats nationally to reclaim the 435-seat House. RealClearPolitics last Friday put the generic ballot -- a poll of whether Americans will vote for Democrats or Republicans for Congress -- in favor of Democrats by 6.1 percentage points.
Democrats have already shown their muscle in several battleground districts over the past year, winning key special elections and coming unexpectedly close to ousting Republicans in others.
Trump is well aware of his need for a victory Tuesday in Ohio, if only to tamp down the sense of panic about the looming mid-terms.
"They're talking about this blue wave. I don't think so," Trump told a rally in Ohio, where he sang Balderson's praises. "I think it could be a red wave."
Trump also extended an endorsement to a more provocative Republican candidate who is on a primary ballot Tuesday. Kansas Attorney General Kris Kobach -- known for his divisive positions on immigration and voting rights, is running for governor against the Republican incumbent.
Others in the party had urged Trump not to intervene, warning that nominating such a controversial figure as Kobach, a Trump loyalist, could energize Democrats.
But the Republican president made the extraordinary move of supporting a candidate over a sitting Republican governor, tweeting his endorsement of Kobach whom he called a "fantastic guy."
Two seats in Kansas's all-Republican congressional delegation are seen as potential Democratic pick-ups. Primary elections are also being held Tuesday in Michigan, Missouri and Washington state. ---