Troy Balderson: How did a moderate Republican become a Trump firebrand?

Self-styled 'Christian conservative with grit' supports president's tax bill, Mexico border wall and plans to scrap Obamacare 

Joe Sommerlad
Wednesday 08 August 2018 12:43
Republican Troy Balderson thanks President Trump following Ohio special election win

Troy Balderson, the Republican candidate claiming a narrow victory in the Ohio 12th Congressional District special election, has been on quite a journey.

Born and raised in Zainesville, where he still lives, the 56-year-old Ohio State Senator once enjoyed a reputation as a moderate, right-leaning local businessman but has bought into the Donald Trump programme wholesale in recent years.

He supports the divisive tax plan the Trump administration passed in 2017 and has backed the president’s efforts to repeal and replace Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act and controversial plan for the construction of a wall along the US border with Mexico.

In his campaign adverts, Mr Balderson, a former car dealer, stressed his status as a farmer and triathlete and styled himself a man not afraid of “hard work”, which he argued would be key to getting the wall built.

His loyalty to the White House incumbent is such that he was forced to reassure local reporters he would not allow it to interfere with the best interests of his district.

He had to fight a tough battle for the party’s nomination with rival Melanie Leneghan, the choice of the influential Freedom Caucus, the pair spending $2m (£1.55m) running attack campaigns against each other, according to CNN.

Having beaten Ms Leneghan by a margin of just one per cent, Mr Balderson was rewarded with the support of Ohio governor John Kasich, one of President Trump’s most outspoken critics from his own side, allowing the senator to appeal to his fellow Republicans as a unifying candidate.

He also secured the support of the House Republican-linked Congressional Leadership Fund. Groups associated with the fund have invested $2.4m (£1.85m) in boosting their man’s profile and $3.7m (£2.86m) attacking his Democratic rival, Danny O’Connor, painting the “change” candidate as little more than a wet liberal stooge of the House Minority Leader, Nancy Pelosi.

The campaign was heated, with Mr Balderson dropping his earlier focus on the economy to go after “Dishonest Danny” in highly negative, Trumpian fashion, fear-mongering about the latter’s intentions for higher taxes, tighter gun laws and open immigration.

The self-described “Christian conservative with grit” was not above using his own mother in a campaign commercial, reassuring voters that he would never jeopardise Social Security or Medicare because Mrs Balderson depended on it, she sat beside him at the kitchen table wearing a nasal cannula to assist her breathing.

Despite the backing of the Republican war chest, Mr Balderson came close to jeopardising his bid to replace the safely centre-right, nine-term representative Pat Tiberi when he unwisely attacked Mr O’Connor at a Zainesville rally with the line: “We don’t want someone from Franklin County representing us.”

Franklin County is home to the state capital, Columbus, and is Ohio’s most densely-populated region, home to approximately a third of the district’s eligible voters, according to New York magazine.

Insiders deemed the aggressive shift necessary to secure the win and it appears to have paid off, though possibly not without having a lasting impact on how the victor is perceived by voters.

The Trump camp still reportedly feared Mr Balderson’s establishment connections might alienate hardcore loyalists, hence both President Trump himself and vice president Mike Pence jetting into Ohio late on in the campaign to address rallies and endorse Mr Balderson, Mr Trump insisting, “he was always my first choice”.

Mr Balderson declared victory in last night’s special election before all the ballots had been counted but even so was beaten to the punch by the president, who took to Twitter to take credit for the win.

“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,” Mr Trump wrote.

At the time of writing, Mr Balderson is only 1,700 votes ahead of Mr O’Connor, with 3,367 provisional and 5,048 absentee ballots still to be counted, meaning a recount could be on the cards.

His apparent victory will allow the president to insist all is well but, in truth, the tightness of the result in what has typically been a safe Republican seat must be cause for concern within the party, with midterm elections on the horizon.

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