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Trump claims win in US House race, but Democrat surge looms
[WASHINGTON] US Democrats enjoyed a major morale boost Wednesday following elections that highlighted their momentum ahead of November's midterms, as President Donald Trump's Republicans sweated the outcome of a congressional contest that was supposed to be easy pickings.
Mr Trump declared victory for a fellow Republican in Tuesday's Ohio race even though it remained too close to call.
But the fact Democrats had even competed in the solidly red district was the latest example of amped up grassroots energy in the opposition camp, and exposed the vulnerabilities of Republicans just three months before the elections that will determine whether Republicans maintain control of Congress.
The race carries immense implications, as it is the final direct face-off between Republicans and Democrats before the November midterms, and Mr Trump's party was holding its breath about a race that was turning out to be a referendum on the president.
Mr Trump, who made an 11th-hour campaign stop in Ohio's 12th district for state senator Troy Balderson, looked to past victories to boost his argument that Republicans were not in trouble.
"The Republicans have now won 8 out of 9 House Seats" in special elections since Trump's inauguration, the president tweeted.
"Yet if you listen to the Fake News Media you would think we are being clobbered."
The signs are ominous for the GOP. In many of the races mentioned by Mr Trump, the Republicans underperformed, only narrowly winning elections that should not have been competitive.
In Tuesday's Ohio contest, Mr Balderson was ahead of Democrat Danny O'Connor by just 1,754 votes, with thousands of provisional and absentee ballots outstanding.
The margin, less than one per cent, comes in an affluent district that is 88 per cent white, and which Republicans have held for 35 years. Trump won there by some 11 points in 2016.
Opposition momentum in Trump country is becoming undeniable.
"Democrats' morale was the big winner last night," tweeted congressman Keith Ellison, the deputy chairman of the Democratic National Committee.
Several key Republicans have agreed with that sentiment, including Ohio Governor John Kasich, who said it was "shocking" for Republicans that the special election was so close.
"It's clear the energy and intensity is on the Democratic side" nationally, said moderate former Republican congressman Charlie Dent.
The Ohio race also laid bare a critical dimension that could have dramatic implications for 2018: turnout in the district's fast-growing suburbs was an impressive 42 per cent, while in the more rural, lightly populated counties - where Trump support has been strong - turnout ranged from 27 to 32 per cent, the New York Times reported.
Another danger sign for Mr Trump's party: there are more than 60 Republican-held congressional districts that are rated as more competitive than the Ohio 12th.
Democrats need to flip 23 seats nationally to reclaim the 435-seat House, and they are looking to a "blue wave" to get them over the top.
Mr Trump is worried that losing the House, and potentially the Senate, could hurt his ability to advance his agenda - and expose him to Democratic efforts to oust him from power.
But he remained insistent that candidates benefit from his endorsement.
"As long as I campaign and/or support Senate and House candidates (within reason), they will win!" Mr Trump tweeted.
In recent weeks, he has made several campaign appearances ahead of state primaries, endorsing congressional and gubernatorial candidates while imploring his supporters to vote.
Mr O'Connor, who has not conceded and stressed he will run again in November regardless of the outcome, scoffed at Mr Trump's claim to have had an outsize impact on his race.
"I don't think he knows what he's talking about," Mr O'Connor told CNN.
The party in the White House traditionally loses seats in midterm US elections. Democrats believe mounting voter frustration with Mr Trump and the direction he is taking the country are tilting the political playing field further in their favour.
But there were mixed messages Wednesday, when RealClearPolitics put the generic ballot - a poll of whether Americans will vote for Democrats or Republicans for Congress - in favor of Democrats by 5.7 percentage points, lower than the 6.1 recorded the previous week.
Tuesday's round of primaries in Kansas, Michigan, Missouri and Washington also put Republicans on notice that women could play a determining factor in the midterms.
A record number of women, 183, will now be running for US House seats in November, a surge that follows a year marked by the #MeToo movement and defiance of Mr Trump.
They include Rashida Tlaib, who won a Democratic primary in Michigan and is now poised to become the first Muslim woman elected to Congress.