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Is Gov. Kasich Trying to Torpedo Ohio Congressional Candidate on the Eve of a Critical Special Election?

Ohio Governor John Kasich appeared on ABC's "This Week" with George Stephanopoulos on Sunday and ignited a firestorm over the role President Trump is playing in a critical race in Ohio between Republican state Sen. Troy Balderson and Franklin County Recorder Danny O’Connor, a Democrat. The candidates will face off for Rep. Pat Tiberi's abandoned U.S. House seat in what is expected to be a tight contest on Tuesday.

On Saturday, Trump, who had previously endorsed Balderson, attended a rally to support the candidate in Lewis Center, Ohio.

"But to continue our incredible success, we must elect more Republicans and we must elect Troy Balderson," Trump told the crowd in Ohio. "We have to elect Troy. So get your friends, get your neighbors, get your family and get out and vote for Troy on Tuesday. Loyal citizens, great people like you help build this country, and together we are taking back this country. We are returning power to where it belongs -- to the American people."

"Mr. President, we can't go back," Balderson, 56, said at the rally. "I'm not tired of winning." But he said his opponent has a different idea. "Dishonest Danny O'Connor wants to repeal those middle-class tax cuts. Dishonest Danny O'Connor wants to take away your guns. Dishonest Danny supports open borders and sanctuary cities. Dishonest Danny O'Connor will fight against the policies that are turning this country around," Balderson said with the president at his side.

During the interview with Stephanopoulos, Kasich seemed to be second-guessing his own endorsement of Balderson, who Kasich said has "worked with me for eight years in the legislature." Kasich, who's had an ongoing feud with Trump dating back to the 2016 primaries, questioned why Balderson would invite Trump to his rally.

"You know, I don't know, on his website or whatever—I asked him the other day, 'Why are you  bringing Trump in?''" Kasich said.

Balderson replied, "I don't have anything to do with it," according to Kasich.

The Ohio governor seemed angry that Balderson didn't support Kasich's beloved Obamacare, a program he's fought hard to maintain in Ohio and nationwide. "But I don't like what I just heard about this health care," Kasich said, likely referring to a statement Balderson made to the Columbus Dispatch saying, "As a member of Congress, I would vote to repeal and replace Obamacare once and for all and bring true market reforms to the health care industry that increase competition and drive down the cost of premiums for consumers."

That's a bit of a departure from his history of voting for Medicaid expansion. Third Rail Politics reported in May that Balderson voted to expand Medicaid twice and also voted for the implementation of the Obamacare insurance exchanges during his time in the Ohio legislature.

Kasich fumed, "The fact is that I fought hard to make sure that we didn't lose health care for 20 million [people], so I'm disappointed to hear that this morning."

[As a side note, this is the first time I've heard Kasich admit that he supports the entirety of Obamacare writ large.]

"Troy Balderson wants— you know, I'm on television 'cuz they asked me to help him and why am I helping him?" Kasich asked. "Well, there are three reasons," he continued. "One is, he came out against this border separation policy, he came out against the tariffs, and he came out for fixing Social Security."

Kasich said that Balderson is trying to "thread a needle," likely a reference to the struggle to appeal to both Trump supporters and suburban women in Delaware and Franklin counties.

"A lot of these campaigns, unfortunately, the candidate doesn't have a lot to do with it [campaign rally invitations],"  said Kasich. "But I know Troy, I like him, he's been with me and he's declared independence."

"He better be independent," Kasich warned, "because if he's not, he's going to get some calls from an angry constituent, namely me."

O'Connor, for his part, has tried to brand himself as a centrist in a district that is R+7, according to Cook. The district has voted Republican for decades, so a GOP loss would be a huge blow not only the Ohio Republican Party, but also to Trump, who threw his support behind Balderson. O'Connor has campaigned on protecting Medicare and Social Security and expanding access to health care for all. He has also refused to take money from corporate donors and vowed to reach across the aisle if elected. O'Connor, who at age 31 would be the youngest member of Congress if elected, has outraised and outspent Balderson.

Real Clear Politics co-founder Tom Bevan told Fox News on Monday that the race is "going to be very close."

"If Republicans lose this seat, it will confirm they are in a boatload of trouble come November and they should batten down the hatches because it will probably signal a Democratic wave is coming if it's not already there," he said.

RCP has the race as a toss-up on the eve of the Special Election. A recent poll has Balderson up by one and another has O'Connor leading by a point.

The district includes Delaware, Morrow, and Licking counties, and parts of Franklin, Marion, Muskingum, and Richland. Delaware County, notably, has the highest median income in the state, and Franklin is home to Columbus, the most populous city in Ohio. Those two counties — more urban and liberal — have an outsized influence in the district.

Doug Deeken, chairman of the Wayne County GOP, told PJM that he doesn't believe Kasich is trying to hurt Balderson. He said that "country club-style" Republicans are the only Republicans that John Kasich can still appeal to. "For the 12th district, Kasich may be able to help Balderson," said Deeken.

He noted that Trump won Delaware County by a smaller margin in 2016 than Romney did in 2012 (55 percent vs. 61 percent) and Franklin County voted Democrat in both 2012 and 2016.

Trump received 55.6 percent of the vote in Delaware County in 2016, and 60.6 percent in Franklin. That's much higher than the state total (52.1 percent) but a lot lower than some counties, where more than 70 percent of voters supported Trump.

It's quite possible that Kasich is trying to help gin up turnout among independent and moderate voters in Delaware and Franklin counties, where Balderson faces his greatest challenge on Tuesday. Or it could be that Kasich is fuming because a candidate he thought was his ally has refused to endorse the Obamacare he loves so much and wants to sabotage Balderson. One never can tell with Ohio's tempestuous governor.

Deeken wrote off Kasich's comments as the governor "trying to get free media." He said that anytime Trump is mentioned in the media, "Kasich is the guy to elbow his way to the front of the crowd" to comment about it.

It remains to be seen whether Kasich's comments will help or hurt the GOP candidate with voters in the 12th District in Ohio. Trump voters in Ohio are wildly enthusiastic about the president, but it's not clear whether that will translate to a congressional race in the middle of August as voters are finishing up vacations and parents are getting ready to send their kids back to school. Kasich remains moderately popular in the state, although his numbers have declined severely with GOP voters — and especially Trump voters.

A June Quinnipiac poll has Kasich with a 52 percent job approval rating in the state among self-identified registered voters. A surprising 57 percent of Democrats approve of the governor with only 46 percent of Republicans approving of the job he's doing. Trump's approval rating sits at 43 percent in the Buckeye State, with a whopping 91 percent of Republicans supporting him. A paltry 5 percent of Democrats support the president, despite a booming economy, and independent voters generally disapprove of the president by a margin of 57-37.

The prospects for statewide GOP candidates in Ohio are not good at this point in the campaign. The RCP average has former CFPB Director Richard Cordray up by 1.5 points (he led one poll by 7) over Republican Attorney General Mike DeWine. Congressman Jim Renacci, a Republican, is trailing Sen. Sherrod Brown by more than 15 points, which is not surprising considering Brown's popularity in Ohio and Renacci's relatively unknown status outside his district. Kasich's unpopularity within his own party will likely be a drag on the whole ticket, especially for his attorney general, who will have difficulty distancing himself from the administration.

Ultimately the endorsements by Kasich and Trump in the OH-12 race could be a wash. One thing is certain though: the ground game will be critical in this tight race.

Deeken, who has made more than 1000 calls for Balderson, predicts that his candidate will win by 7 points on Tuesday.

Bevan was not as confident. "I think it's going to be very, very tight. It might even be a late night tomorrow," he said.

Who do you think will help Balderson the most on Tuesday? Take my poll and then follow me on Twitter:

This article was updated to include information about statewide races in Ohio.