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Here's the real lesson of the Ohio special election

Updated 2:56 PM ET, Wed August 8, 2018

(CNN) - Politics is about wins and losses. By that measure, Republicans appear to have had a good night on Tuesday, with state Sen. Troy Balderson (R) leading Franklin County Recorder Danny O'Connor (D) by just under 2,000 votes with 99% of precincts reporting in the special election in Ohio's 12th District.

But keeping score in politics -- especially in special elections by simply tallying up wins and losses -- can miss the point. And this is one of those moments.

Yes, Balderson appears to have won. Which means he will likely hold the seat for the handful of months that remain in this Congress. But the underlying dynamics of the district and the race should concern every smart Republican looking at the November playing field and assessing the GOP's chances of holding onto its 23-seat House majority.

Consider that the 12th district is not, by any traditional measure, a toss-up district. Taking in the northern and eastern suburbs of Columbus -- and stretching to more rural areas further east -- it has been held by a Republican member of Congress continuously for the past three decades. In 2012, even while losing the state to President Barack Obama, Mitt Romney won the 12th by 10 points. Four years later, Donald Trump carried it by 11 points.

Based on those numbers, this is not a seat that should be at all competitive -- even in a special election -- if the national playing field was flat-ish. Of course, we know it's not -- based on lots and lots of other results this year. The playing field -- as it so often is in a midterm election with one party in control of all the levers of power in Washington -- is clearly tilted toward Democrats, and will be this November. The question that needs to come into better focus is how tilted.

And that's where the result in Ohio can be instructive -- in judging the size of the coming Democratic wave. According to the Cook Political Report's House editor David Wasserman, there are 68 Republican-held seats that perform less well for the GOP at the presidential level than the 12th. That tells you a lot about where things stand -- and why Balderson's apparent eking out of a victory isn't any reason to celebrate for Republicans.

There's another reason, too: Outside conservative groups dumped millions of dollars into this seat to save Balderson, a spending plan they simply won't be able to repeat around the country.

The Congressional Leadership Fund, which spent upwards of $3 million on ads to get Balderson across the line, was blunt about this financial math in a statement on Tuesday night. "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," the statement read. "Any Republican running for Congress getting vastly outraised by an opponent needs to start raising more money."

And here's a very scary reality for House Republicans: In the second fundraising quarter of 2018, 55(!) Democratic challengers outraised their Republican incumbent opponents, according to CNN calculations. There's no way the Congressional Leadership Fund -- or any other outside group -- can spend $3+ million on all 55 of those incumbents to save them in November.

The worst thing for Republican chances in the midterms is to breathe any sort of sigh of relief following Balderson's apparent victory. To do so would be to mistake winning a battle for winning the war. And if anything, the chances of Republicans holding onto their majority went down slightly on Tuesday night, as Balderson's extremely narrow margin suggests that the Democratic wave is coming -- and it's not a small one.

Consider this: If even half of the 68 Republicans who represent a district less friendly than Ohio's 12th lose this November, Democrats retake the House -- with 11 seats to spare. If only 1 in 3 lose, Democrats stand at a net gain of 22 seats -- needing just one more to retake the majority they lost in the 2010 election.

To be clear: Winning is the goal in politics. Winning is always better than losing. And Danny O'Connor and Democrats didn't spend all that money to come close. They spent it to win.

But Balderson's victory needs to be understood in the context of the broader race for House control. If Republicans believe the lesson of Tuesday night is that the Democratic wave is dying out before it ever gets close to shore, it could make the party's reckoning in November that much worse.

The reality is that history, base enthusiasm and Trump's unpopularity are all working for Democrats and against Republicans. If past is prologue, the question isn't whether 2018 will be a good election for House Democrats but rather how good an election it will be. What Tuesday night showed us is that even in places where Trump (and Romney) won comfortably, Democrats can be very, very competitive.

That fact has to concern any smart Republican looking toward the fall campaign.


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