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What Tuesday’s too-close-to-call elections mean for November

Ohio Republican Troy Balderson carried on Tuesday night as if he had won the special House election, but his lead is razor-thin over Democrat Danny O'Connor in a traditionally red district. In Kansas, Trump-backed GOP gubernatorial candidate Kris Kobach has the smallest of leads over the state's Gov. Jeff Colyer. William Brangham talks with Kyle Kondik of the University of Virginia Center for Politics.

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  • William Brangham:

    With less than 100 days out from the November midterms, primaries were held Tuesday in four states, plus a special election in Ohio.

    We take a look at how those contests are playing out and what they signal for both parties in the fall.

    Last night, Ohio Republican Troy Balderson carried on as if he was a winner. He said he'd work hard for his Columbus-area House district, even sent a gesture of thanks to the head of his party.

  • Troy Balderson:

    I would like to thank President Trump.

    (CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

  • William Brangham:

    But while Balderson leads in the current vote tally, that lead is razor-thin over Democrat Danny O'Connor in this traditionally Republican district, 50.2 percent for Balderson, 49.3 for O'Connor, still too close to call.

    Last night, O'Connor matched the energy of his supporters, and there was no talk of conceding defeat in the special election.

  • Danny O’Connor:

    We're not stopping now. Tomorrow, we rest, and then we keep fighting through to November.

  • William Brangham:

    His performance encouraged state Democrats.

  • David Pepper:

    At the end of the day, to have it be close ultimately is a big sign of momentum going into November.

  • William Brangham:

    Meanwhile, the White House said today that President Trump, who campaigned for Balderson, will continue supporting candidates who back his agenda.

    The president had backed several other candidates competing on Tuesday in Republican primaries. Michigan Gubernatorial candidate Bill Schuette, Michigan gubernatorial candidate John James, and Missouri Senate candidate Josh Hawley all won the GOP nominations in their races.

    And in neighboring Kansas, the Trump-backed Republican gubernatorial candidate, Kris Kobach, has the smallest of leads, less than 200 votes, over the state's incumbent Republican governor, Jeff Colyer. The Associated Press is not projecting a winner in that race either.

    Colyer has been in state government for a decade, but has only been governor for half-a-year, while Kobach, Kansas' current secretary of state, has gained a national profile with hard-line conservative stances on immigration and voting rights.

    In Michigan, Gretchen Whitmer clinched the Democratic nomination for governor over Abdul El-Sayed in a contest that tested the staying power of liberal candidates like El-Sayed, who were backed by independent Senator Bernie Sanders. Michigan will also almost certainly send the first-ever Muslim woman to Congress. Rashida Tlaib won the Democratic primary to fill, starting in January, the Detroit-area seat vacated by Congressman John Conyers after he was accused of sexual misconduct.

    Tlaib will have no Republican opposition in the fall, smooth sailing for one of the record 185 women who are major-party nominees for House seats this midterm year.

    And here for more on those election results is Kyle Kondik. He analyzes elections at the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, and he is also the author of "The Bellwether -Why Ohio Picks the President."

    Thanks for being here.

  • Kyle Kondik:

    Thanks for having me.

  • William Brangham:

    Last night, lots of primaries, lots of different states. What stood out to you overall?

  • Kyle Kondik:

    I think the big picture takeaway is that a lot of election results since President Trump got elected have sort of suggested a Democratic bounce-back and the potential for the Democrats to have a good election in November.

    Nothing that happened last night would make you think differently about that. I mean, I know that Democrats didn't win the Ohio 12 special election, but they came pretty close in a district that really should be very difficult for a Democrat. And so the environment, I think, remains good for Democrats, particularly as you look at the battle for the U.S. House of Representatives.

  • William Brangham:

    Let's talk more about that Ohio race in particular. It's still to close to call, as we were reporting.

    But, as you said, this should — we shouldn't have been talking about this race at all. This should be a clear red victory.

  • Kyle Kondik:

    Yes, this is kind of a bedrock Republican district. Ohio Governor John Kasich used to hold it. Then Pat Tiberi, the most recent representative, held it for a long time. Donald Trump won the district by about 11 points.

    And to me, that 11-point margin actually sort of understates how Republican this district is, because if you look at results down the ballot in recent history in this district, it's even redder than that. And it looks likely Troy Balderson, the Republican, is going to win, but by less than a percentage point.

    And so that means Danny O'Connor, the Democrat, is going to perform about 10 points better on margin than Hillary Clinton did there in 2016. That's about in keeping with what the average change we have seen in these special elections have been, both at the federal level and also at the state level.

  • William Brangham:

    So, as you were saying, not too much to change our opinion about the national picture.

  • Kyle Kondik:

    No, I don't think so.

    I mean, and, again, I don't necessarily know if it's a slam dunk or something that Democrats are going to win the House. But I think if you are the Democrats, you look at last night, and you probably feel pretty good about what you saw.

  • William Brangham:

    Right.

  • Kyle Kondik:

    Republicans, of course, could come back and say, hey, we won. And they have won most of these special elections. But they have really all taken place in places that are more Republican than the national average.

    Certainly, Ohio 12 is to the right of the national average too.

  • William Brangham:

    A lot of House seats will be up for grabs in Washington state. And they have a particularly unusual way of doing it.

    What were you looking at there?

  • Kyle Kondik:

    So, Washington, like California, they have a top two primary, meaning that all the candidates compete on the same ballot. Then the top three finishers advance to November.

    And, sometimes, the two-party vote totals in that state and in California can sort of be predictive of the fall. And the Democratic vote totals in some key districts out there really seemed quite good. They're still counting votes out there. But it leads one to think that Democrats might be able to pick up a seat or more out of Washington state.

    And, again, when you're only need to pick up 23 nationally, those seats add up pretty quickly. So I think Democrats were also pretty encouraged by Washington state. But, again, vote totals are not totally final yet.

  • William Brangham:

    Missouri had some union labor issues on the ballot last night. And this obviously comes when the national trends for unions are not great. Membership is down. The Supreme Court had just taken a little bit of wind out of their sails as well.

    What happened there last night?

  • Kyle Kondik:

    There was a — kind of a right-to-work referendum on the ballot, and it failed by more than 2-1, which is a great result for labor, even in a state like Missouri, which used to be kind of a national bellwether state, and really has trended Republican over the last 10 to 15 years.

    It also speaks to a larger phenomenon in American political life, which is that, when you have got a conservative president, the public all of a sudden starts to act a little bit more liberal, just like, when there's a liberal president, the public starts to be a little bit more conservative.

    We see that on public opinion, for instance, on the Affordable Care Act. It's become more popular since President Trump got elected. And you can maybe see it a little bit in these right-to-work results, in that that's a liberal agenda item, fighting right-to-work, and Democrats succeeded in defeating it by a big margin in Missouri last night.

  • William Brangham:

    Speaking of the president, how do you see his influence having played out last night?

  • Kyle Kondik:

    I think the president, he took credit basically for Balderson apparently winning.

    But, at the same time, if Hillary Clinton were in the White House, Ohio 12 probably wouldn't have been that much of a contest. And we know from American history that holding the White House, you pay a toll for that down the ballot in these special elections and the midterms often, particularly when the president's approval rating is poor, as this president's approval is.

    And so, again, maybe Trump's visit to Ohio 12 on Saturday moved the needle a little bit, but, if he were more popular, the race probably wouldn't have been so close to begin with.

  • William Brangham:

    And what about on the flip side? There's been a lot of talk recently about the Bernie Sanders-Ocasio-Cortez slice of the Democratic Party.

    How does last night look for them?

  • Kyle Kondik:

    They didn't succeed in two of the — two of the high-profile races, the Michigan governor's race, the Democratic primary, and also a House primary in Kansas' 3rd District.

    Sort of the more establishment-oriented candidates won, particularly in that Michigan race. And it just goes to show that, as impressive as Ocasio-Cortez's win against Joe Crowley was in New York state, it was more the exception than the rule.

    I would say that the so-called Democratic establishment is generally getting their candidates through these primaries, although she is a major exception, given that she beat a top-ranking House Democrats.

  • William Brangham:

    Kyle Kondik, thank you very much.

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