Arriving in central Ohio Saturday to provide an injection of energy into the final special election of 2018, President Donald Trump again made only passing remarks in support of the race's Republican, choosing for the third time this week to instead focus upon his administration's priorities.
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The latest effort by the president to rally his base of supporters in a swing state key to his 2016 presidential election victory -- and to his 2020 ambitions -- came as Ohio's 12th Congressional District prepares for an unusually tight election Tuesday which Democrats are hoping becomes the latest evidence of midterm momentum.
But while Trump invited Republican state Sen. Troy Balderson up to the stage to offer brief remarks and expressed his full support for his candidacy, the president appeared to be more enraptured with a different Ohio representative -- the embattled Rep. Jim Jordan, currently juggling a future bid for Speaker of the House with controversy over his alleged knowledge of abuse when he was a college wrestling coach.
Jordan, who arrived to the Olentangy Orange High School gymnasium here to chants of "Jordan! Jordan!" minutes before Trump took the stage, received an elevated refrain as he approached the rally's lectern: "Speaker of the House! Speaker of the House!"
Following a quick recitation of the administration's accomplishments by the six-term, Freedom Caucus-founding congressman, Trump lavished praise upon Jordan.
"What a great defender he's been," the president said. "What a brave, tough cookie."
"I wouldn't want to wrestle him," he added, referencing Jordan's illustrious college wrestling career.
Trump made no mention Saturday of the Ohio State wrestling team, several members of which accused Jordan of being aware of sexual abuse complaints against the team's doctor when he was an assistant coach in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
He was similarly silent on a self-inflicted controversy that began less than a day earlier when he tweeted his displeasure with a LeBron James over a CNN interview in which the Ohio-born basketball star repeated earlier criticisms of the president.
"Lebron James was just interviewed by the dumbest man on television, Don Lemon," the president tweeted Friday evening. "He made Lebron look smart, which isn’t easy to do. I like Mike!"
But the president's opinion on the matter -- which received widespread attention on social media throughout the day, and even a response from the first lady, who indicated interest in visiting the school recently opened by James for children in his hometown of Akron, via her spokesperson -- ended there Saturday. Though protesters held signs supporting the former Cleveland Cavalier outside the event, Trump didn't raise the matter before his supporters.
The rally Saturday invoked comparisons to Trump's March visit to the Pittsburgh area to assist in protecting another House seat in a formerly deep-red congressional district that mere months earlier would have been unfathomable to think could fall into Democratic hands.
After his previous effort to stem the meteoric rise of now-Rep. Conor Lamb fell short in Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District special election, the pressure on the GOP in Ohio's 12th District, where Rep. Pat Tiberi served for nearly two decades before his retirement in January, is even greater as Democrats eye November.
In Ohio the role of Lamb is played by Franklin County Recorder Danny O’Connor -- dubbed "Dishonest Danny" by Balderson, channeling Trump's penchant for nicknames -- who, much like the Pennsylvania congressman, represents a wave of young candidates boosting Democrats’ ambitions of taking back a House majority in November. O’Connor, 31, is in the final days of a campaign run in a strikingly similar fashion to that of Lamb’s -- calling attention to his moderate views and pledging to work across the aisle while arguing for leadership changes for both parties.
Hoping to avoid the fate faced by Lamb’s adversary Rick Saccone is Balderson, who narrowly captured the Republican special election nomination over a Freedom Caucus-backed opponent. Jordan's appearance Saturday nevertheless appeared to demonstrate that the hatchet had been buried.
Balderson faced criticism in recent weeks, however, for a thus-far less-than-effective effort to unify the conservative and moderate poles of his party.
But on Saturday morning, the president again reiterated his support for Balderson.
"Troy Balderson, running for Congress from Ohio, is in a big Election fight with a candidate who just got caught lying about his relationship with Nancy Pelosi, who is weak on Crime, Borders & your 2nd Amendment-and wants to raise your Taxes (by a lot). Vote for Troy on Tuesday!" Trump tweeted.
Troy Balderson, running for Congress from Ohio, is in a big Election fight with a candidate who just got caught lying about his relationship with Nancy Pelosi, who is weak on Crime, Borders & your 2nd Amendment-and wants to raise your Taxes (by a lot). Vote for Troy on Tuesday!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 4, 2018
The state senator readily embraced the president Saturday, pledging to be a vote for Trump administration priorities should he be elected to Congress.
"I'm going to fight alongside [Trump] to continue this economic success, I promise," Balderson said, adding that protecting Social Security and Medicare were among his additional priorities.
Saturday’s event 20 miles north of Columbus, was Trump’s third campaign stop of the week after a Tuesday visit to South Florida to boost gubernatorial candidate Rep. Ron DeSantis, R-Fla., and a Thursday trip to Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, to stump for Rep. Lou Barletta, R-Pa., who is aiming to unseat the state’s Democratic Sen. Bob Casey.
But neither of those races, which will both be decided in November, has the urgency of the Ohio special election taking place Tuesday, a fact apparent in Trump’s remarks.
While the president made the requisite sales pitch for each candidate at their events, his focus on the midterms was also notably brief as he instead chose to harp on subjects from border security to the voter identification laws and his distaste for the media, in a potential preview of what could become 2020 re-election talking points. Like those in Florida and Pennsylvania before it, the stop to campaign in Ohio shared the dual-benefit of providing Trump an opportunity to proactively connect with his own swing state voters.
Regardless of the focus of his campaign stops, the president continues to draw large crowds of his most ardent supporters, some of whom in Pennsylvania drove from as far as two states away and waited in line for hours for the experience, despite being unable to vote for the Senate candidate. Though on Thursday, while the president’s campaign moved Saturday’s event from the town of Delaware to here in Lewis Center, claiming it was “to accommodate more Ohioans," the suburban high school gymnasium was vastly smaller than his usual arena-sized crowds.
While Balderson and O’Connor will spend another three days campaigning ahead of Tuesday’s special election, following Saturday's event, Trump is scheduled to return to his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey, to continue his weeklong summer vacation.