In a district that President Donald Trump won by 11 points in 2016, Republicans used a late television ad blitz along with help from the President and Vice President, to squeak out an apparent special election victory in a Congressional district in central Ohio on Tuesday, leaving unanswered questions about whether Republicans can keep control of the House and Senate in November.
With 100 of precincts reporting, GOP State Sen. Troy Balderson led by 1,700 votes over Democrat Danny O'Connor; as of late Tuesday night, it still wasn't clear whether provisional and uncounted absentee ballots could trigger a mandatory recount, if the final margin was less than 0.5 percent.
Elections officials said late Tuesday that as many as 8,400 ballots could still had to be counted over the next ten days under Ohio election law - but the extra votes seemed to come mainly from areas that backed Balderson.
"I’m sure Republicans will celebrate tonight, but a 1-point victory in that district is nothing to commend," said GOP pollster Frank Luntz.
The final count won't happen immediately: "By state law, outstanding provisionals and absentees are not tabulated before the 10th day following the Election," state elections officials made clear.
While the final results won't be official until later this month, the bottom line for many elections experts was that this race never should have been so close - and Democrats were more than happy to peddle that line as well.
"This district should have been a slam dunk for the GOP," said Rep. Ben Ray Lujan (D-NM), who leads Democratic election efforts, "and the fact that we are still counting ballots is an ominous sign for their prospects in November.”
"Republicans may celebrate a squeaker of a victory but not a single one is resting easy tonight," said Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), as Democrats pointed to the roster of GOP districts which had less than an 11 point Trump edge in 2016.
"Trump is the reason this seat was even competitive," said election expert Nathan Gonzales.
Still - even with votes to count - it was seemingly a win for Republicans, and their side was more than happy to trumpet that fact.
"Congratulations to Congressman-Elect Balderson on his hard-fought victory tonight," said Rep. Steve Stivers (R-OH), who heads the GOP effort to hold on to the U.S. House in November.
"A very special and important race!" President Trump tweeted from his New Jersey golf retreat.
Mr. Trump had held a rally on Saturday night in what turned out to be the key county - Delaware County - which provided Balderson with his lead.
"After my speech on Saturday night, there was a big turn for the better. Now Troy wins a great victory during a very tough time of the year for voting," the President wrote on Twitter.
"Winning really is a big deal here," said GOP strategist Liam Donovan, "whatever the margins."
But others didn't share that Republican optimism about what it meant for November.
"In the end, we're going to wind up with an incredibly tight race in a Trump +11 district," said elections expert Brand Allen. "This is not good news for Republicans."
If Balderson prevails, he will likely be sworn into office after Labor Day - and then he will have to run for re-election in November, two months after assuming office.
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