Ohio Democrat Bets Biden's Agenda Will Help, Not Hurt, With Swing Voters

Danny O’Connor, who nearly won a 2018 special election, is running again on a kitchen-table platform.
Danny O'Connor speaks to supporters at an election night rally on Aug. 7, 2018. After skipping the 2020 election cycle, he's running again in a district whose boundaries are still unknown.
Danny O'Connor speaks to supporters at an election night rally on Aug. 7, 2018. After skipping the 2020 election cycle, he's running again in a district whose boundaries are still unknown.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

COLUMBUS, Ohio ― If you ask Danny O’Connor to sum up how he plans to sell reluctant voters on his Democratic campaign for Congress, he answers not with a word but with an object: A wallet.

O’Connor, a successful lawyer, brandished his beat-up wallet during a late July breakfast at Tommy’s Diner, a retro haunt just outside the city’s downtown area. The gesture is a little cheesy, but it helps him make his point.

“The number one thing that unites people is a wallet,” O’Connor said. “People care about whether or not they’re going to be able to provide for their children.”

O’Connor’s race will be an intriguing test case for Democrats’ midterm strategy. He is betting that he can convince voters in central Ohio that President Joe Biden’s economic agenda will be good for their wallets ― and be popular enough to defy the trend of midterm voters handing power in Congress to the party that doesn’t hold the White House. It’s a striking contrast from 2010, when Democrats in swing seats did all they could to distance themselves from then-President Barack Obama.

O’Connor, the 34-year-old Franklin County recorder, announced in April that he would be running for Congress.

O’Connor has some experience courting voters in the Columbus area already. Running on a similar platform, O’Connor lost by less than 1 percentage point to Republican Troy Balderson in an August 2018 special election to replace Republican Pat Tiberi in Ohio’s 12th Congressional District.

A loss is nothing to celebrate, but given the gerrymandered district’s Republican slant, O’Connor overperformed. Tiberi had won the 12th by nearly 37 points in 2016; Donald Trump won it in the same year by an 11-point margin.

In the midterm elections, more voters turned out, diluting the effect of higher-than-usual Democratic enthusiasm and suburban Republicans’ disaffection with Trump. O’Connor lost to Balderson by 4 percentage points.

Ohio is due to lose one of its House seats because of slow population growth. And O’Connor potentially stands to benefit from a reformed redistricting process in Ohio that now prioritizes keeping counties intact in the same districts and encourages the Republican majority in the state legislature to get at least some Democratic buy-in.

Alaina Shearer, a Delaware County Democrat and business owner who lost to Balderson by 13 percentage points in 2020, has kept her campaign account active but said in an April announcement that her decision to actually run will be based on redistricting.

O’Connor, who did not run for Congress in 2020, insists, though, that he plans to run regardless of what his new district looks like. (Given that uncertainty, he does not yet say he is running in a particular district against a particular opponent.)

“I’m not going to wait for a permission slip from House Republicans at the state House here to run for Congress,” he said.

O’Connor is campaigning as a supporter of Biden’s plan to extend the expanded child tax credit, enact universal preschool and adopt paid family leave.

And though O’Connor does not yet know which Republican he’ll face in November 2022, House Republicans’ party-line vote against Biden’s economic recovery bill has enabled him to run against the entire GOP conference, whose members he sees as interchangeable on the central issues of the last few years.

“When the cards are on the table and there’s an opportunity for economic relief and get the economy going again, every Republican in the House voted against supporting working families ― whether it was getting them enough money to pay the mortgage or pay the rent, or put food on the table to help them out,” O’Connor said.

“Working people are being shut out. They don’t have a voice.”

- Danny O'Connor, Democratic congressional candidate

“Working people are being shut out. They don’t have a voice,” he added. “They don’t have anyone who’s standing up for access to job training so they can get ahead economically. They don’t have anyone who’s standing up who cares about what their bills look like at the end of the month and whether or not they can pay them.”

O’Connor’s candidacy is also a test of the extent to which local candidates can defy national trends of partisan polarization.

Ohio, a blue-collar swing state that Obama won twice, has drifted further into the Republican column in recent years.

Trump won statewide by 8 percentage points in both the 2016 and the 2020 elections. And while Democrats managed to make significant congressional, gubernatorial and state legislative gains in neighboring states, including Michigan, over the course of Trump’s presidency, Ohio has proved less fruitful. There are still 12 Republicans representing Ohio in the U.S. House, compared with four Democrats ― the same breakdown as at the start of Trump’s presidency.

The National Republican Congressional Committee, House Republicans’ campaign arm, remains confident that if any Democrat changes the state’s partisan balance, it won’t be O’Connor.

“Ohioans have already proven they want nothing to do with Danny O’Connor,” NRCC spokesperson Camille Gallo said in a statement. “O’Connor was rejected by voters because he supports Democrats’ socialist agenda and will be soundly rejected again.”

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, House Democrats’ campaign arm, did not comment for this story.

But based on its public materials, the DCCC isn’t yet targeting O’Connor’s district. Ohio’s 12th is not on the list of 22 Republican-held or open districts that the DCCC considers “in play.” The only Ohio district that made the list is Ohio’s 1st, a similar suburban district in the Cincinnati area.

Some Democrats in Ohio are more optimistic about O’Connor’s prospects.

“Danny’s run this race before and did well in a race where a lot of folks just thought the Republican was going to run away with it,” a prominent Ohio Democrat told HuffPost, requesting anonymity for professional reasons. “We expect him to do the same [this time] and think he’s going to be a really unique talent for the party moving forward.”

O’Connor’s boosters see him as the kind of Democrat who can appeal to Ohio voters with increasingly conservative national voting habits without alienating the Democratic base.

O’Connor has a boyish grin. He’s a season ticket holder for the Ohio State University Buckeyes football team, enjoys hunting deer and fowl, and is a churchgoing Catholic in northern Columbus’s Clintonville neighborhood.

His wife, Spenser, now a partner at O’Connor’s law firm, is a business-minded Republican who voted for Biden and, of course, her husband.

When O’Connor and I met in July, he recounted how earlier that morning Spenser joked that their infant daughter, Jackie, might grow up to be a Republican like her mom. Coincidentally, Jackie smiled upon hearing their chat, O’Connor said with a chuckle.

Spenser is skeptical of the federal spending that Biden has unleashed, but they have found common ground on other matters, like paid family leave. “She thinks it’s an economic investment,” he said.

O’Connor is also hoping that his relative moderation on hot-button issues can keep voters focused on his support for popular elements of Biden’s agenda.

O’Connor opposes the Green New Deal, Medicare for All and reducing police funding, though he supports Columbus’s creation of a civilian police review board to investigate officer misconduct.

Danny O'Connor, left, stands with Columbus Mayor Andrew Ginther in August 2018. O'Connor's praise for Ginther's handling of protests against police racism elicited some criticism.
Danny O'Connor, left, stands with Columbus Mayor Andrew Ginther in August 2018. O'Connor's praise for Ginther's handling of protests against police racism elicited some criticism.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

On May 30, 2020, just days after the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, protesters took to the streets of Columbus. Members of the Columbus police force pepper-sprayed a group of Black elected officials, including Rep. Joyce Beatty (D-Ohio), who had joined the demonstration.

That day, on his personal Facebook page, O’Connor thanked Columbus Mayor Andrew Ginther (D) for “taking action to ensure that thousands of our friends and neighbors may continue to peacefully protest in Columbus ― and that our city infrastructure and small businesses may be unharmed at this painful time.” His message angered a number of Facebook friends who criticized his praise in light of the pepper-spraying incident and, in some cases, even expressed regret for supporting his 2018 congressional bid.

In a follow-up conversation on Friday, O’Connor clarified that he never meant to suggest an indifference to the police misconduct that day.

“It was a very, very, very crucial time in our country’s history. Obviously folks were protesting about the murder of George Floyd, and in the context of that protest, some officers acted inappropriately,” he said. “One thing that I thought was most important then was that folks continue to be able to protest and have their voices heard. I felt like we had folks at many levels of government who were doing everything they could to make sure those organizers were able to protest in a peaceful manner.”

But when I tried to engage him at greater length on issues that divide progressives from moderates, O’Connor, unlike some prominent Democrats, avoided bashing the party’s left wing.

Instead, he tends to steer the conversation back to helping families afford a middle-class life, framing it as a reflection of his Catholic faith.

“I’m a big Beatitudes guy. We had it read at our wedding,” he said in July. “The message is pretty clear: to help people, to care for people. And if we don’t do that, and if we don’t care for new parents and get people back on their feet, whether they suffer from drug addiction or had job loss, through no fault of their own, what are we doing?”

One challenge for Ohio Democrats in O’Connor’s race, but also in the 2022 Senate and gubernatorial contests, is the degree to which it has become difficult for individual candidates to overcome voters’ negative associations with the national party.

Just over a decade ago, Congress was filled with moderate Republicans representing liberal areas and centrist Democrats representing more conservative areas. When Obama came to power in 2009, for example, Arkansas, West Virginia and North Dakota, all of which had long since ceased to be competitive for Democratic presidential candidates, were each represented by two Democratic senators.

These lawmakers found success despite their constituencies’ partisan or ideological leanings by delivering tangible local benefits, forming strong communal ties and occasionally going out of their way to thumb their nose at their national party.

“If [O’Connor] can climb up that hill, which is increasingly steep, he’s proven himself to be a very valuable asset.”

- David Schleicher, Yale Law School professor

But with growing polarization that has hardened voters’ partisan identities and the decline of local news media that candidates once used to cultivate local brands, there are fewer ticket-splitting voters willing to elect Democrats in red areas.

Look no further than the 2020 elections. “Middle-Class Joe” Biden, who has built a political career out of his purported appeal to blue-collar white voters, failed to improve on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 margin in Ohio.

“Seeing how far that shifted obviously needs to be eye-opening for Democrats about where we are,” said Greg Beswick, a Columbus-based Democratic consultant who is not tied to O’Connor’s campaign.

The flip side of the coin for O’Connor is that Democrats ― like Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia― who are able to carve out local identities that defy national trends, have obtained greater power precisely because of how rare they now are.

“If [O’Connor] can climb up that hill, which is increasingly steep, he’s proven himself to be a very valuable asset,” said Yale Law professor David Schleicher, who analyzes political and demographic patterns.

During O’Connor’s 2018 bid, the most polarizing issue in the race was whether O’Connor would vote for Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), whom Republicans have turned into a liberal villain, as House speaker.

Like other Democrats in swing seats, O’Connor repeatedly assured voters that he would not vote for her. But a few weeks before Election Day, in a withering interview with then-MSNBC host Chris Matthews, O’Connor ended up admitting that he would vote for Pelosi if Democratic control of the House depended on it. Republicans used the clip in numerous TV and digital ads.

This time around, Pelosi, who has promised to step aside in 2022, is not likely to be a factor.

Even if she were, though, O’Connor isn’t worried.

“I still, to this day, cannot, honest to God, recall a normal person asking me who I would vote for for speaker of the House,” he said. “No one cares. It’s a D.C. thing.”

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