Door-Knocking Democrat Tries to Break G.O.P. Grip in Ohio Special Election

NEW ALBANY, Ohio — There was a pitiable chance of success when Danny O’Connor knocked on Tami Halliday’s door Thursday morning to ask for her vote. All the data showed that Mr. O’Connor, a Democrat running in an August special election for a House seat here, was all but wasting his time.

But when Ms. Halliday asked him his stance on gun control, things got brighter fast. Mr. O’Connor said he favored an assault weapons ban, along with preventing people with domestic violence records and mental illness issues from having guns. “Do you take money from the N.R.A.?” she asked. “No,” Mr. O’Connor replied. “I have an ‘F’ rating from the N.R.A.”

With that, Ms. Halliday, who voted for President Trump in 2016, said she would vote for Mr. O’Connor.

The special election in a region that stretches from the affluent suburbs of Columbus to the Appalachian foothills east of Zanesville could be the next big test of the vaunted “blue wave” brewing for November. The nonpartisan Cook Political Report rates the race a tossup.

But Mr. O’Connor, 31, will need hundreds, if not thousands, of Tami Hallidays to win on Aug. 7 in a district that has not elected a Democrat since 1980. Republicans are confident that they can blunt the Democrats’ momentum and dampen liberal energy with a win here.

Mr. O’Connor’s Republican challenger, Troy Balderson, 57, an understated state senator, is from a more rural part of the district, and he says that he can relate to his constituents’ struggles. The candidates are running to replace Representative Pat Tiberi, a pro-business, old-line Republican who stepped down in frustration before his term ended to take a position with the Ohio Business Roundtable. In an odd twist, regardless of who wins in three weeks, the two will face each other again in November.

“I don’t know if the race is a microcosm of what is going on in the country, but it’s probably close,” said Gary Walters, the clerk of courts in Licking County, who backs Mr. Balderson. “You have a big-city Democrat opposing a small-town rural conservative.”

What does he like about Mr. Balderson? “He’s a Republican,” he said, “and that’s enough here for me.”

At a breakfast forum on Thursday at the New Albany Country Club, with its high ceilings and portraiture of dogs and horses, the candidates engaged in civil debate and essentially staked out orthodox positions of their parties. Mr. Balderson, who strongly supports Mr. Trump, tried nonetheless to distance himself from the president’s policies on trade, which he said would hurt the region’s farmers, and on separating migrant children from their families at the border.

“I don’t support family separation,” Mr. Balderson said. “That was not right. That was not the way this country was made.” He does support the president’s push for a border wall and highlights his “A” rating from the N.R.A.

Both candidates seemed to go out of their way to praise Ohio’s governor, John R. Kasich, with Mr. Balderson referring to him as “our great governor.” Mr. Kasich, an outspoken critic of Mr. Trump, has not endorsed his fellow Republican. Mr. O’Connor, the Franklin County recorder, received an unanticipated boost when The Columbus Dispatch, with a traditionally conservative editorial page, endorsed him.

“By all accounts, both O’Connor and Balderson are decent, successful men who would work hard for voters of the 12th District,” The Dispatch wrote. “But one supports a reasonable, thoughtful approach to addressing the important issues facing Congress and our country, and the other supports a president who uses tactics and pushes policies that this Editorial Board has denounced.”

While limited public polling shows Mr. Balderson with a lead in the race, Mr. O’Connor said he was encouraged by early voting numbers, in which he has an edge in traditional Republican areas, and by energy shown from progressive groups. The race is also in flux because turnout in any special election is difficult to forecast, and this one falls during summer vacation season.

Mr. Balderson, who declined a request for an interview, has tried to paint Mr. O’Connor as a far-left liberal who would simply do the bidding of the House Democratic leader, Representative Nancy Pelosi, if elected. Mr. O’Connor said he was puzzled by those attacks because he has vowed not to vote for Ms. Pelosi to lead House Democrats if he is sent to Washington.

With that, he is taking a page from the last Democratic upset in a House special election, when Conor Lamb captured a district in Pennsylvania Trump country, in part by distancing himself from Ms. Pelosi’s leadership.

Mr. O’Connor said the party needed a “new generation of leadership.” In Washington, he said, “we see a great debate society that is not focused on taking on the challenges of the 21st century.”

That is a message that resonated with Mindy Hedges, who supports Mr. O’Connor.

“We absolutely need a change,” she said, adding, “I am hopeful that this district is ready for a change as well.”

After the forum, Mr. O’Connor changed from his gray suit, white shirt and maroon tie into a red Ohio State polo shirt, khaki shorts and running shoes to knock on doors in New Albany, a rarefied suburb with a median household income of more than $190,000. (In Zanesville, Mr. Balderson’s hometown, the median income is $26,000.)

The New Albany area, with its affluence and concentration of college-educated voters, represents the kind of area where Democrats must do well in the midterm elections if they are to recapture the House. The suburbs north of Columbus are pulsating with growth and prosperity.

Door-knocking, on one level, is an inherently inefficient way to campaign. But the way Mr. O’Connor assessed it, if he had won over Ms. Halliday, who said her views on gun control stemmed from her desire to protect her two daughters, then she may well talk to her friends and post something on Facebook — and, if he is fortunate, he will have 10 new votes instead of one.

Phil Jones voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and Mr. Trump in 2016. An executive at Nationwide Insurance, he told Mr. O’Connor that the most important issues for him were the national debt and overhauling immigration laws. Mr. Jones said he did not care for Mr. Trump’s manners, but he did like the president’s tax plan because his company gave workers a bonus and increased its 401(k) contribution.

Mr. Jones said he wanted someone who was willing to be bipartisan, then said to Mr. O’Connor, “I think that’s one of your pitches in your commercials.”

“If you are willing to do what you say in your commercials then you absolutely have my vote,” he promised.

Mr. O’Connor, who rarely misses a chance to tell voters that he is engaged to a Republican, readily said he would.

After a couple more stops to meet with supporters, Mr. O’Connor drove an hour east to Zanesville, Mr. Balderson’s hometown and a strongly Republican area. Mr. O’Connor went there to meet with a few retired mine workers for a beer.

They did not show up.

A version of this article appears in print on , on Page A11 of the New York edition with the headline: Door-Knocking Democrat Tries to Break G.O.P. Grip in Ohio. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe

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