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Who’s Afraid of Danny O’Connor? (Trump Is.)

Running as a pragmatic populist, the moderate Democrat is on the cusp of flipping a Republican district in Ohio next week.

Danny O'Connor for Congress

By most metrics, Danny O’Connor, the Democratic nominee to replace retired Congressman Pat Tiberi, is a long shot. His Republican opponent, Troy Balderson, enjoys the support of the state’s governor, John Kasich, and of President Donald Trump. That should carry weight in a gerrymandered district like Ohio’s 12th, which has voted Republican for around 40 years and went for Trump in 2016 by 11 points.

But O’Connor, the 31-year-old recorder for Franklin County, has unexpectedly tightened Balderson’s lead, to the point that Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball shifted the race’s rating from “leans Republican” to “toss-up.” The Cook Political Report rates it likewise. Now, Trump himself is traveling to Ohio to stump for Balderson ahead of next week’s special election.

An unsettled GOP has invested heavily in the race. Politico reported on Tuesday that national Republicans “have bombarded the suburban Columbus district with more than $3.3 million in TV ads in an effort to boost Balderson, a state legislator,” though O’Connor maintains a fundraising lead of $1,445,504 to Balderson’s $1,264,723. That O’Connor has managed to shrink his opponent’s lead to this degree could portend other Democratic successes in November. (The New York Times called the race a “big test of the ‘blue wave.’”) But if he wins—or simply makes it close—he may also put the party’s leadership in a difficult position.

O’Connor repeatedly has said that he won’t support Nancy Pelosi as the Democratic leader in the House, a position he seemed to reaffirm in his final ad, released on Tuesday. “The same old politics in Washington just aren’t working. Democrats and Republicans are at each other’s throats every day, leaving the issues that matter most to your family behind. We need new leadership in both parties,” he said.

He’s hardly the only Democrat politician to oppose Pelosi. In 2016, she survived a leadership challenge from another Ohio Democrat, Representative Tim Ryan, and as Politico reported in June, 11 candidates on the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s list of top-tier candidates have said they’ll oppose her as the party’s leader in the House. The opposition doesn’t map cleanly onto the party’s internal divisions, either. Some candidates, like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York, are left wing, but others aren’t. Ryan is a moderate who recently attended a conference organized by Third Way, the centrist think tank.

Similarly, O’Connor isn’t running to the left. He’s been compared to Pennsylvania Democrat Conor Lamb, a moderate who won a special election in March the state’s 18th congressional district, and who is poised to keep a seat in Congress even though the district has been redrawn. Lamb, now running in the state’s new 17th congressional district, holds a double-digit lead over his Republican opponent. And like O’Connor, he has said he’ll oppose Pelosi’s leadership.

This emerging, cross-factional opposition to Pelosi reflects a growing resentment toward party leadership among the rank-and-file. Congress “is not working for people,” Lamb said in January, and added that the party needs “new leadership.” Kansas Democrat James Thompson, now running his second campaign for Congress, told The Washington Post in April that “...we need new, fresh leadership in there that has a progressive vision, and Nancy’s a corporate centrist.” Kathleen Williams, a three-term Democratic state legislator now running for Montana’s at-large congressional seat, said in a campaign ad that Democrats “need a fresh start.” The gist, generally, is that Democrats are too reluctant to change the guard, and that its tactics consequently failed to keep up with evolving political challenges. But there’s a deeper undercurrent, too. This is the year that Democrats could answer Trump’s pseudo-populism with a more authentic version.

Populism, when defined down to an anti-establishment impulse, doesn’t necessarily favor a specific political affiliation. Lamb, after all, is no democratic socialist. According to FiveThirtyEight, he’s already voted along with Trump’s agenda 63 percent of the time. If elected, O’Connor might not be much to Lamb’s left. Nevertheless, he’s a pragmatic populist—not only in calling for a change to entrenched leadership, but by centering his campaign around the defense of popular entitlement programs. Though he doesn’t back Medicare for All, O’Connor has campaigned heavily on protecting Medicare and Social Security, and has relied on a compelling personal story to do it. (His mother is a breast cancer survivor.)

Medicare and Social Security are reliably popular, and O’Connor’s soft anti-establishment rhetoric could appeal to voters who are disillusioned by Trump, but unwilling to fully embrace the Democratic Party. O’Connor has deliberately appealed to suburban Kasich voters, working under the assumption that they’re more moderate than their Trumpian peers. “Kasich is popular among Republicans in Ohio who are available to us to win. The Kasich voter who is a lifelong Republican, but is kind of alienated by Trump and likes that Kasich is more pragmatic, is the lane of voters we want,” one Democratic strategist recently told The Hill.

It can be dicey to pivot to the suburbs, as Jon Ossoff’s campaign in Georgia proved, but the demographics of O’Connor’s gerrymandered district leave him little room to maneuver. And Kasich, of course, has endorsed Balderson. But there’s some logic to O’Connor’s strategy. Ohio is the only state Kasich won in the 2016 Republican primary, and while the 12th district is firmly Republican, Trump only won it with 52 percent of the vote. It’s not inconceivable that some of the Ohioans who backed the governor over Trump would disregard his endorsement and vote against Trump again. It would be a quite populist thing to do.