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For the GOP, the midterm boat might look afloat from afar, but it's full of leaks

First Read is your briefing from "Meet the Press" and the NBC Political Unit on the day's most important political stories and why they matter.
IMAGE: Cathy McMorris Rodgers
Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Washington, who also had been believed to be up for interior secretary, at Trump Tower in New York on Monday after meeting with President-elect Donald Trump.Richard Drew / AP

WASHINGTON — Yes, Republicans appear to have avoided an embarrassing disaster in OH-12 last night, with Republican Troy Balderson narrowly leading Democrat Danny O’Connor by about 1,750 votes (but with more than 3,400 provisional ballots yet to be counted — along with absentee ballots). But if that apparent razor-thin margin of victory makes Republicans think their midterm boat is still afloat, they’re ignoring a LOT of leaks. And those leaks not only make Democrats the heavy favorite to win back the House, they might be the difference between a 20 to 40 seat gain for Democrats or a 40 to 60 seat gain.

Taking last night’s primary and special election results in total, there are at least four reasons to think that — if it takes this much energy and money for Republicans to pull out one-off wins in special elections in red districts — there’s no way they’ll be able to do it in 435 places at once come November. Consider:

1. The Trump effect

We don’t know for sure if Donald Trump’s visit to OH-12 made things better or worse for Troy Balderson, but it sure looks like Trump may have turned out more voters against the GOP than for them. Just look at the turnout gap between O’Connor-friendly suburban Franklin County — where turnout was 42 percent — and the more rural counties in the district — where turnout hovered around 30 percent, give or take a few points. And that’s after both Trump and Mike Pence rallied the base, and after a barrage of outside spending from GOP groups (more on that below). If that’s what it takes to get a less-than-enthused Trump vote out to eke out a one-point win in a district that shouldn’t be close, Republicans are in trouble.

2. Money in OH-12

This line caught our eye from the Congressional Leadership Fund’s press release on the Ohio special election: “While we won tonight, this remains a very tough political environment and moving forward, we cannot expect to win tough races when our candidate is being outraised. Any Republican running for Congress getting vastly outraised by an opponent needs to start raising more money.” Not exactly a gentle warning. CLF spent $2.7 million on TV ads alone propping up Balderson in this race, with the NRCC pitching in another million, according to Advertising Analytics. Compare that with less than $750k from the DCCC spent on pro-O’Connor ads. Overall, CLF has shelled out more than $15 million on special elections this cycle. That’s unsustainable in an environment when Republicans have dozens of competitive districts to defend.

3. Suburban turnout in Ohio and Missouri (yes, Missouri)

As we noted above, Democratic turnout in the Ohio suburbs showed how fired up those voters are. But maybe even more eye-popping is this number from St. Louis-area MO-2, the state’s most suburban congressional district. There, in a race that’s barely on the board in November compared to other competitive seats nationwide (the Cook Political Report rates it as “likely Republican), 108k Democrats showed up to vote in the primary (won by Cort VanOstran), compared to just 80k for Republicans in incumbent Ann Wagner’s seat. That’s a gap that should worry any GOP incumbent with suburban constituents.

4. A nail-biter in Washington state

And speaking of races that look a lot more competitive today than yesterday… Washington state’s top-two primary gave us a pretty good head-to-head look at how a few general election races are shaping up. With votes still being tallied in Washington’s Fifth District, Republican Cathy McMorris Rodgers is currently besting Democratic rival Lisa Brown by less than 0.5 percent. In Washington’s 3rd, incumbent Jaime Herrera Beutler is running ahead of Democrat Carolyn Long just 41 percent to 37 percent. Those vote shares hardly bode well for Republicans in seats that should be solidly in the “likely R” category for the GOP. The silver lining for Republicans in Washington? Dino Rossi ran well ahead of his Democratic challengers in WA-8.

Bottom line: If folks like Cathy McMorris Rodgers or Ann Wagner are in trouble, it’s hard to imagine a world where the GOP cavalry is going to have the resources to show up for them. And for every leak the GOP boat springs, the Democratic advantage for the midterm gets a little stronger.

What’s next in the OH-12 count

Here’s what’s next as the count continues in OH-12, where Balderson (and Trump) have declared victory, but where O’Connor has not conceded. Via the NBC News Decision Desk: “Provisional ballots will be counted within the next ten days. The vote then must be certified by August 24. After the certification if the candidates are still within 0.5% of each other, a mandatory recount is required. For these reasons, the race will remain Too Close to Call until all the votes have been counted.”

But regardless of the drama of the process, the closeness of this race is the biggest story. And keep in mind that the margin here fit right in with what we expected based on Democrats’ past performance in special elections, which has been an average of about a 12 point improvement on the Trump-Clinton margin. See below:

KS-4 in 2016: Mike Pompeo 61%, Daniel Giroux 30% (R+31)

KS-4 in 2016 (presidential results): Trump 60%, Clinton 33% (R+27)

KS-4 in 2017: Ron Estes 53%, James Thompson 46% (R+7)


GA-6 in 2016: Tom Price 62%, Rodney Stooksbury 38% (R+24)

GA-6 in 2016 (presidential results): Trump 48%, Clinton 47% (R+1)

GA-6 in 2017 (initial round): Jon Ossoff 48%, Karen Handel 20%, Bob Gray 11%, Dan Moody 9%, Judson Hill 9%.

GA-6 in 2017 (runoff): Handel 52%, Ossoff 48% (R+4)


MT-AL in 2016: Ryan Zinke 56%, Denise Juneau 40% (R+16)

MT in 2016 (presidential results): Trump 57%, Clinton 36% (R+21)

MT-AL in 2017: Greg Gianforte 50%, Rob Quist 44% (R+6)


SC-5 in 2016: Mick Mulvaney 59%, Fran Person 39% (R+20)

SC-5 in 2016 (presidential results): Trump 57%, Clinton 39% (R+18)

SC-5 in 2017: Ralph Norman 51%, Archie Parnell 48% (R+3)


NJ GOV in 2013: Chris Christie 60%, Barbara Buono 38% (R+22)

NJ in 2016 (presidential results): Clinton 55%, Trump 41% (D+14)

NJ GOV in 2017: Phil Murphy 56%, Kim Guadagno 42% (D+14)


VA GOV in 2013: Terry McAuliffe 48%, Ken Cuccinelli 45% (D+3)

VA in 2016 (presidential results): Clinton 50%, Trump 44% (D+6)

VA GOV in 2017: Ralph Northam 54%, Ed Gillespie 45% (D+9)


AL SEN in 2016: Shelby 64%, Crumpton 36% (R+28)

AL in 2016 (presidential results): Trump 62%, Clinton 34% (R+28)

AL SEN in 2017: Doug Jones 50%, Roy Moore 48% (D+2)


PA-18 in 2016: Tim Murphy (R) unopposed

PA-18 in 2016 (presidential results): Trump 58%, Clinton 38% (R+20)

PA-18 in 2018: Conor Lamb 49.9%, Rick Saccone 49.5% (D+0.4)


AZ-8 in 2016: Trent Franks 69%, Mark Salazar 31% (R+38)

AZ-8 in 2016 (presidential results): Trump 57%, Clinton 36% (R+21)

AZ-8 in 2018: Debbie Lesko 53%, Hiral Tipirneni 47% (R+6)


OH-12 in 2016: Pat Tiberi 67%, Ed Albertson 30% (R+37)

OH-12 in 2016: Trump 52%, Clinton 41% (R+11)

OH-12 in 2018: Troy Balderson 50%, Danny O’Connor 49% (R+1)

Four other takeaways from last night’s primaries

Here are four other storylines from last night.

  • The Sanders/Ocasio-Cortez wing of the party runs out of gas in Michigan: We were skeptical that Sanders-endorsed gubernatorial candidate Abdul El-Sayed had the resources in place to capitalize on his big progressive endorsements, but the combination of his compelling background as a Muslim American, his support for Medicare-for-all and the star power of endorsers Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez still created plenty of media buzz. Ultimately, Gretchen Whitmer (whose slogan was the bluntly pragmatic but effective “Fix the Damn Roads”) sailed to victory by more than 20 points. By the way: In another race we’ve been watching: In Kansas’ 3rd district, with 71 percent reporting, Sharice Davids narrowly leads Sanders-endorsed Brent Welder. As of this writing, we’re still waiting for votes from Johnson County.
  • The march of the female candidates continues. One consistent story throughout the midterm cycle has been the success of female candidates up and down the ballot. With wins last night by Whitmer in the Michigan Democratic gubernatorial primary and Laura Kelly in the Kansas gubernatorial contest, we now have the most female gubernatorial nominees in any cycle in U.S. history. That’s 11 nominees; 8 Democrats (in Idaho, Oregon, Texas, Georgia, New Mexico, Maine, Kansas, and Michigan) and 3 Republicans (in Alabama, Iowa and South Dakota.)
  • How Trump-endorsed candidates fared : The president has been on a winning streak when it comes to GOP primary endorsements (although his record in special elections has been a bit more mixed). He can now boast that two of his favored candidates – John James for Michigan Senate and Bill Schuette for Michigan governor — got decisive wins last night At publication time, we still don’t know the winner of the Kansas gubernatorial race, where Trump-endorsed ally Kris Kobach narrowly leads incumbent Jeff Colyer by less than 550 votes.
  • Labor wins big in Missouri: One under-covered story heading into last night was Missouri’s right-to-work ballot measure, which asked voters whether to let a law stand that would have banned compulsory union fees. The result was resounding; voters rejected the proposed law by a 2-1 margin. It hasn’t exactly been a great few years for unions, between Supreme Court and legislative losses around the country. And while it’s far from clear that the Missouri victory is a sign of pro-union sentiment sweeping the country, it’s a reminder to labor groups that they’ve got a path ahead in the age of Trump.

ProPublica: How three Mar-a-Lago members are shaping the VA

There have been plenty of stories about graft and cronyism in the Trump administration. But this one from ProPublica might be the most dramatic example that we’ve seen. According to the story, Marvel Entertainment chair Ike Perlmutter, along with two other club members, are exerting huge influence on the VA, even though none have ever served in the military or the government. The trio “spoke with VA officials daily, the documents show, reviewing all manner of policy and personnel decisions. They prodded the VA to start new programs, and officials travelled to Mar-a-Lago at taxpayer expense to hear their views.”

More: “The arrangement is without parallel in modern presidential history. The Federal Advisory Committee Act of 1972 provides a mechanism for agencies to consult panels of outside advisers, but such committees are subject to cost controls, public disclosure and government oversight. Other presidents have relied on unofficial “kitchen cabinets,” but never before have outside advisers been so specifically assigned to one agency. During the transition, Trump handed out advisory roles to several rich associates, but they’ve all since faded away. The Mar-a-Lago Crowd, however, has deepened its involvement in the VA.”