John Fund: Will the 'Trump penalty' be a factor in November? What Tuesday's primaries tell us

President Trump took full credit and proclaimed victory for Republican state Sen. Troy Balderson in a special U.S. House election in Ohio Tuesday, though the tight race remained too close to call. Balderson also claimed victory.

The Republican candidate led Democrat Danny O’Connor, the Franklin County recorder of deeds, by 1,754 votes, with all precincts reporting. However, nearly 8,500 provisional and absentee ballots remained to be reviewed. That won’t happen until Aug. 18. A recount would be mandatory if the winner at that point is ahead by less than one-half of 1 percent. 

President Trump tweeted Tuesday night: “When I decided to go to Ohio for Troy Balderson, he was down in early voting 64 to 36. That was not good. 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. He will win BIG in Nov.”

Regardless of the final outcome of the special election, Balderson and O’Connor will face each other in the Nov. 6 general election for a full two-year term in the House.

The president’s claim that he gave Balderson a boost is very plausible. But in addition, Republicans in general clearly outspent Democrats in a bid hold the district in the Columbus area that Trump carried by 11 points in the 2016 presidential election.

House Speaker Paul Ryan’s super PAC, the Congressional Leadership Fund, spent $3 million on the congressional race, sending volunteers to knock on 600,000 doors.

Scott Ryan, a GOP state legislator who is no relation to the House speaker, said he was pleased that it looked like his party would hold the seat. But he admitted to the Columbus Dispatch that “the fact that this is close is certainly not what we were hoping for.”

Ohio native Kyle Kondik of the University of Virginia Center for Politics said the GOP’s narrow lead in the special election “is very much in line with what we’ve seen all over the country in special elections this cycle: Democrats often running well ahead of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 performance.”

The reason Republicans have to worry about the special election results of the past year or so is that they are defending 42 districts in November without the advantage of having an incumbent in the race. If Republicans win a clear majority of those open seats, they keep the House. If they don’t, there will be a Democratic speaker elected for the first time since 2009.

Tuesday’s primary results in states other than Ohio give Democrats hope they will make gains in November.

Unions in Missouri were able to put a referendum on that state’s ballot challenging a new GOP-passed law ending the requirement that union membership be compulsory. Public employee unions flexed their muscle, and the GOP “right to work” law went down to a 2 to 1 defeat.

But it was in Washington state that the clearest storm warnings were spotted in Tuesday’s primary. That state uses an unusual “jungle primary” system in which all candidates regardless of party appear on the same ballot.

Historically, the totals that each party’s candidates post in the primary come close to the partisan division in the November election. Because of the state’s open primary, it has been said that Washington’s primary often functions like a high-participation poll.

On that basis, Republicans weren’t happy with Tuesday’s results. In three key congressional races for seats currently held by Republicans, the total vote for the GOP was below 50 percent. That’s a clear sign of tough, competitive races this fall.

In Spokane, for example, Cathy McMorris Rodgers, the No. 4 Republican in House leadership, only narrowly edged out Democratic opponent Lisa Brown.

“Republicans lost ground in state legislative primaries as well,” Seattle talk-show host and 2000 GOP candidate for governor John Carlson told me. “They can bounce back in November but it will be a knockdown, drag out fight.”

The reason for the GOP angst is simple. President Trump’s policies now often poll favorably with a majority or near-majority of the voters, but his personal ratings hurt his party with swing voters.

Political handicapper Charlie Cook of the Cook Political Report says that this fall the GOP will pay a “Trump penalty,” which he defines as the price Trump and his party are paying for the president’s “modus operandi.”

President Trump himself has decided that if he has become the issue for many voters, then so be it. Expect to see him continue as the center of attention in this fall’s campaign. That will make the November election an up-or-down referendum on the president – and that apparently is exactly the way he likes it.

John Fund is a columnist for National Review. Follow him on Twitter @JohnFund.