Trump looms large over Ohio special election as Democrats try for an upset

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WILMINGTON, Ohio — A special election next month in Ohio’s 15th Congressional District features a Republican clinging tightly to former President Donald Trump and a Democrat trying to patch together a new coalition that reaches from suburbia to Appalachia.

The landscape favors the Republican, coal lobbyist Mike Carey. Trump, whose endorsement helped Carey win a crowded primary, carried the district by 14 points in 2020.

But the Democrat, state Rep. Allison Russo, sees an opening for a candidate who resists ideological labels and can build on inroads her party made with college-educated voters in the Trump era. She flipped her legislative district, once a reliable Republican ring around Columbus, by 14 points in 2018.

“I know about tough battles,” Russo, 45, told a crowd of about 40 gathered this week at a park in Wilmington, about halfway between Columbus and Cincinnati. “And I know about getting out and doing the work necessary to reach across the aisle and talk to folks who are Democrats, Republicans and independents.”

The district stretches from several Franklin County suburbs of Columbus to working-class and rural areas in southern Ohio, including Athens, home to Ohio University and often referred to as a blue island in a deep red part of the state.

As well as Trump did in the Ohio 15th, the Trump-weary Republican whose departure opened the seat did even better. Former Rep. Steve Stivers — who practiced a more traditional conservatism before retiring to the private sector and suggesting that his party move on from Trump — nearly doubled the former president’s margin of victory. As such, the special election Nov. 2 could provide clues on how to run with or against Trump in next year’s midterm elections.

“The best thing Democrats can realistically achieve is continued progress in the Franklin County portion,” said David Niven, a political science professor at the University of Cincinnati who has served as a speechwriter for Democrats. “As much as Russo is as fine a candidate as Democrats could have hoped to run, this is just not a plausible district for them right now.”

Although the race is one of two special congressional elections on the ballot in Ohio, the contest in the Cleveland-based 11th District favors Democrats by a much wider margin than the 15th favors Republicans. A recent Emerson College poll commissioned by NBC4 in Columbus showed Carey leading Russo, 50 percent to 39 percent.

The most optimistic Democrats see shades of a 2018 special election in a similar, neighboring district where their candidate, Danny O’Connor, came within a percentage point of winning a seat that the outgoing Republican had won by 36 points.

“It can be done,” O’Connor, the elected recorder of property deeds in Franklin County, said of Russo’s challenge. “And I think she’s doing a great job of putting herself in that space.”

Stivers, who endorsed another candidate in the primary but now supports Carey, called Russo a “good candidate” even though he believes the Republican will win convincingly.

“They might shave the margins in a special election, but it’s going to be really hard for a Democrat to actually win this seat,” said Stivers, who now leads the Ohio Chamber of Commerce. “So I feel like the best they can hope for is a moral victory here and, as you know, moral victories don’t get a vote on the House floor.”

Carey, 50, campaigned with Trump during the primary but has kept a lower profile since winning the nomination. Through Friday, Russo had outspent him on TV and digital advertising, $347,000 to $135,000 when spending by the National Republican Congressional Committee on behalf of Carey is included, according to ad tracking firm AdImpact. Carey has declined invitations to debate Russo. And he has ducked questions about his friendship with GOP operative Corey Lewandowski, an early booster of his campaign who was recently fired from Trump’s super PAC after an accusation that he sexually harassed a donor. His campaign spokesperson also has not responded to NBC News’ requests for an interview.

In what’s expected to be a low turnout election, observers see a disciplined play for core GOP voters that will help Carey win, probably by a margin closer to Trump’s than to that of Stivers. But with new districts being drawn for 2022, there could be longer-term consequences.

“Carey is what would happen if Fox News came to life and ran for Congress,” Niven said. “He's running a very base-oriented message, and most of this district, of course, is rural Ohio. I think for the Democrats, the dynamic just comes down to 40 percent of the district is Franklin County, and I think Russo's a strong candidate for that part of the district. But in the rest of the district, the … 'Can't we all get along?' message is not exactly what folks want to hear.”

Trump remains central to Carey’s campaign. His website prominently displays Trump’s endorsement and a pitch to “elect a pro-Trump Buckeye.” One recent ad includes footage of Carey with Trump at a summer rally in Ohio. Speaking directly to the camera, Carey challenges “anyone who refuses to put America first.” This week, Carey welcomed House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy to Ohio. The California Republican, a Trump ally, is in line to replace Democrat Nancy Pelosi as House speaker if the GOP wins control of the chamber in 2022.

“Nancy Pelosi and Allison Russo — we know what their liberal agenda means,” a narrator says in a TV ad released this week by the NRCC.

Russo goes to lengths to distance herself from the Democratic Party’s left flank. Unlike some progressives in Congress, she says passing an infrastructure bill should not be tied to passing President Joe Biden’s larger “Build Back Better” program. Russo, a former health care policy researcher, also prefers a more incremental path to universal health care that starts with building on the Affordable Care Act.

When a voter at her Wilmington event asked if she would caucus with progressives, Russo tiptoed around the label. “At the end of the day when people ask me to describe myself, I am pragmatic,” she replied, before segueing into praise for Sen. Sherrod Brown, a progressive Ohio Democrat who outperforms his party’s other candidates in rural and working-class counties.

“Someone that I admire on the House side is Rep. Cheri Bustos, someone who has a district that has been in the past very similar to this district,” Russo said in an interview, mentioning a retiring moderate Democrat whose Illinois district Trump narrowly won twice. “She’s someone who has figured out a way to really work in and have an economic message for her district.”

Bill Martin, a retired nursing home administrator in the Wilmington crowd, said he found Russo’s politics sufficiently progressive. But he isn’t convinced she can win.

“I doubt it,” he said. “I’m just being realistic.”

Ben Kamisar contributed reporting.