Alarms bells are starting to ring for the GOP as Democrats have 'the wind at their back' heading into November

Scott Olson/Getty ImagesOhio Democratic congressional candidate Danny O’Connor
  • Tuesday night’s Ohio special election and Washington State primaries indicate a tough road to November for Republicans.
  • Near-ties in a ruby-red Ohio district and a conservative stronghold in Washington raise questions about the benefit of the president’s endorsement and illustrate Democratic energy.
  • Republicans say they need to boost voter turnout in November – or else.

Alarm bells are starting to ring for the Republican party.

After the GOP threw enormous resources and political weight behind a congressional candidate in a ruby-red Ohio district, Troy Balderson held a less than one-point lead over his Democratic opponent as of Wednesday morning.

Balderson is expected to come out as the victor once all remaining provisional ballots are counted over the next week. But he saw the largest drop in support – a whopping 36 percentage points compared to the district’s Republican candidate in the 2016 election – among all of the special elections since President Donald Trump took office, according to The New York Times.

In Washington state, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, a longtime incumbent and the highest-ranking GOP woman in the House, also led her Democratic opponent, former state Senate majority leader Lisa Brown, by less than one percentage point in Tuesday’s jungle primary.

The fact that Republicans are struggling to win even deeply conservative districts has the party officially in panic.

“It’s really kind of shocking, because this should be just a slam dunk, and it’s not,” Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who reluctantly endorsed Balderson, said in a Sunday interview with ABC.

Matt Mackowiak, a GOP strategist and and the founder and president of Potomac Strategy Group, said he still has hope for Republicans keeping the House majority, but concedes there’s real cause for concern.

“It’s clear there’s tremendous risk if you are in an R+10 district or worse,” he said, adding the Democrats “have the wind at their back.”

The Trump effect

Tuesday’s results – and months of Democratic energy in special elections and primaries across the country – could mean several things for November’s midterm elections.

Republicans are generally unsure whether candidates will benefit more from Trump’s endorsement or from distancing themselves from the president.

In Washington’s 5th congressional district, McMorris Rodgers, a member of House GOP leadership, has attempted to walk a tightrope between supporting the president, who won her district by 13 points, and criticising some of his immigration and trade policies.

Confronted at a recent town hall about her reluctance to publicly challenge Trump, the congresswoman stuck to her talking points.

“I have stood up to him when I thought that was appropriate,” McMorris Rodgers said of the president. “I work for the people of eastern Washington, and that is my priority, to represent this district and get results on behalf of the people of eastern Washington.”

Trump appears convinced that his endorsement is an undisputed boon for congressional candidates, boasting that he turned Balderson’s race around after stumping for him in Ohio last weekend.

On Wednesday, the president claimed that there will be a “giant Red Wave” in November, as long as he can “find the time” to campaign for his party.

“As long as I campaign and/or support Senate and House candidates (within reason), they will win! I LOVE the people, & they certainly seem to like the job I’m doing,” Trump tweeted. “If I find the time, in between China, Iran, the Economy and much more, which I must, we will have a giant Red Wave!”

Mackowiak said it’s unclear how vulnerable Republicans should approach Trump over the next 90 days.

“He’s so popular with the Republican base at 90 or 92% that you risk significantly turning off the Republican base the more you distance from Trump,” he said, “so the cost is easy to calculate, but the benefit is hard to calculate.”

Michigan Democrat Gubernatorial candidate Gretchen WhitmerBill Pugliano/Getty ImagesMichigan Gubernatorial candidate Gretchen Whitmer won Tuesday’s Democratic primary.

Democratic turnout

What is clear is that Democratic turnout is way up – all over the country.

While both party’s voters have been energised this year, the spike in turnout has been much more dramatic among Democrats. In Ohio, the most affluent and best-educated areas of the district turned out to vote in much higher numbers than the more rural regions of the 12th district – a very concerning fact for Republicans.

In Washington, where voters mail in their ballots, the votes are still being counted, but Democrats are enthusiastic about turnout in three House races, where early returns showed Democratic candidates racking up higher vote totals than Republicans.

Also on Tuesday night, Michigan saw the highest gubernatorial primary turnout in 40 years. More than 1.1 million people voted for Democratic candidates for governor, while just about 975,000 people cast ballots for the Republicans. (This is up from 1 million GOP votes for governor in 2010 and 529,000 votes for Democratic candidates).

Mackowiak said that between now and November, Republicans should be hyper-focused on turnout.

“There’s no time for vacation, there’s no time for golf, there’s no time to waste time – you have to be solely focused on turning out strong Republicans and on winning independents,” he said.

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