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A closer-than-expected Ohio congressional race surprises Republicans and encourages Democrats

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — A political newcomer’s closer-than-expected finish in Tuesday’s special congressional election in Ohio surprised Republicans and jolted Democrats in a former bellwether state both parties had all but given over to a runaway Trump victory this fall.

Democrat Michael Kripchak still lost the race for the 6th Congressional District to two-term Republican state Sen. Michael Rulli, 55, by 9.3 percentage points. Comfortable enough, but much closer than Republicans had seen previously in the district.

Former President Donald Trump carried the district, running along the Ohio River and the border with Pennsylvania, by about 30 percentage points in 2020. Former GOP Rep. Bill Johnson — whose unexpired term was up for grabs Tuesday — had won his last four elections by even more than that.

Kripchak, 42, also became the first Democratic candidate to carry the blue-collar Mahoning County — home to Youngstown and Ohio’s once proud steel valley — since Trump turned it red in 2020. Kripchak leads the county by a slim margin, as votes are still being counted.

Mahoning County Republican Chairman Tom McCabe said that was pretty much on par for a purple county that often breaks close to 50/50. He noted that GOP margins lagged Trump’s performance more in several smaller rural counties, where turnouts ran as low as 8.5%.

The closer-than-expected margin likely had as much to do with lack of interest as any shift in voter sentiment.

“It’s a solid red district. We know that,” McCabe said. “We kind of went into this election knowing that, and maybe we all took it a little bit for granted on this one.”

McCabe, who also serves as county elections director, said voters may have been turned off by the nastiness of the primary or confused by the calendar. But he doesn’t see that carrying over into November, when Rulli and Kripchak must face off once again for a full two-term House term.

This time, though, they’ll be on the ballot with a presidential race, which he anticipates will drive 6th District turnout much higher.

“We’ll make sure it’s over before it starts,” he vowed confidently.

Rulli was equally confident in his victory speech. He credited Kripchak for working hard but said he was the superior retail politician, better suited to the blue-collar district.

“This is Bruce Springsteen, the forgotten man, ‘Joe Bag of Donuts.’”

Kripchak said Wednesday that he was not surprised that he performed above expectations. He said he thinks Democrats could win the district with effort and investment.

“I know there’s a lot of commentary about how this is a Trumpian district, but that’s not what I learned on the campaign trail,” he said. “This is a district that has felt abandoned by the Democratic Party.”

Democrat Robert Hagan, retired as the area’s long-time state senator, said he hopes Democrats in the district will be encouraged by the result.

“Democrats had become so discouraged, so overwhelmed by the Trumpian way of politics, how it’s gotten more confrontational, and all the democratic upheaval,” he said. “I hope this a wake-up call for those Democrats that seem to be in a discouraged state of mind that we can do this. Just come out and vote.”

Julie Carr Smyth, The Associated Press