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GOP senator wins closer-than expected election, but does that forecast this fall's vote in Ohio?

Sen. Michael Rulli (R-Salem) gets congratulations after his last session in the Ohio Senate on June 12, 2024.
Karen Kasler
Statehouse News Bureau
Sen. Michael Rulli (R-Salem) gets congratulations after his last session in the Ohio Senate on June 12, 2024. The day before, he was elected in a special election in the 6th Congressional District to replace former U.S. Rep. Bill Johnson (R-Marietta), who resigned in January to become president of Youngstown State University.

It’s no surprise that state Sen. Michael Rulli (R-Salem) won the special election for Ohio’s 6th Congressional District on Tuesday. Rulli won by just over 9 points, but Donald Trump won the district by 29 points in 2020.

That has political analysts considering whether this says anything about Ohio’s upcoming U.S. Senate race this fall.

The eastern Appalachia and Ohio river district was solidly Democratic in the '90s. But it's been strongly Republican since Bill Johnson, now the president of Youngstown State University, was elected in 2010.

In fact, it has had the sharpest shift toward Republicans of any district in the country, said Kyle Kondik with Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. Kondik said this election was notable because it was an underperformance for Republicans. Rulli is known for his family's local chain of grocery stores and had raised and spent four times what his Democratic opponent Michael Kripchak did.

Kondik said that's important because this is an area that U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) needs to do well in this fall as he runs against Trump-endorsed Republican Bernie Moreno.

"If Sherrod Brown is going to win re-election, he needs to do better than Joe Biden does all over Ohio, but I would specifically look at Eastern Ohio as an important place for him," said Kondik.

"Brown doesn't need to win these places in general though," Kondik added. "But he just can't get blown out there the same way that Biden would. And he doesn't even really need to do as well as the Democrats did in the special election. But there needs to be some noticeable difference between the Senate and the presidential race.”

But Kondik notes turnout was only around 15% of the 600,000 voters who cast ballots in 2020, so while this is an interesting result, he’s not sure it’s meaningful.

Big year for special elections

There have been seven special elections so far this year: in New York, Virginia, Utah, Rhode Island and California. Kondik said the results have shown a political environment similar to the one in 2020, with some key states that had been Republican swinging back toward Democrats.

“Those collective results are maybe painting a little bit different picture of the political environment than polls are, which polls generally show a worse political environment I think for Democrats than 2020 was," Kondik said.

Five more special elections are ahead this year. The next one is in Colorado, and then New Jersey holds one in September. Wisconsin, California and Nebraska will hold special elections on Nov. 5, the date of the general election.

Contact Karen at 614-578-6375 or at kkasler@statehousenews.org.