TOLEDO, Ohio — One week before a special congressional election in heavily Republican Ohio, the race is playing out without its national star — President Donald Trump.
Given past opposition to his agenda by his party’s likely victor, Trump has decided to stay home, and Ohio Republicans have largely taken to describing their incumbent congressman, David Joyce, as someone who has achieved accomplishments and bipartisan accomplishments.
But the stakes, and the optics, are high for a president who has struggled to find his footing, and his absence is being watched closely by a party that’s eager to find Trump’s protege to beat House Democrats in November’s midterm elections.
In any other suburban district, Democrats would be celebrating a sweep, a moment for bragging about the Trump era in Washington, a marker of what life under the two-term GOP president will look like in January.
But Trump’s abrupt decision to skip the contest — which congressional Republicans cast as nonpartisan — has fed the narrative Democrats have long sought: that the president is something of a polarizing figure, capable of inspiring only the most fervent of the GOP base and picking losers on the other side.
“We recognize the value of the president being here and the president being involved in an effort like this. On the other hand, I also am not a person who believes in campaigning, particularly one as important as this one, ” Joyce said.
“It isn’t really a sprint and it isn’t really a marathon,” he added. “You need to take in the more important marathon of this entire cycle.”
Joyce is a rising star in the GOP and a junior member of the House Freedom Caucus. He has built a reputation as a hard-line fiscal conservative and a serious opponent of the Affordable Care Act. He worked closely with Trump to quickly win approval of his bill to roll back the ACA’s individual mandate.
But the same pitch that helped him to win election in the redrawn 12th District last year has not been enough to win over his base, which is slightly more conservative than the overall majority of Republicans here.
Earlier this year, he was among the few House Republicans who bucked party leaders and voted for a more conservative health care bill, the American Health Care Act, proposed by the White House and congressional leadership. The measure never gained traction in the House.
The planned course correction by the White House and Republican leaders this month brought the relatively moderate Joyce into line. He has since supported the so-called Cassidy-Graham alternative — which would repeal the ACA’s individual mandate, though provide federal funds to help low-income Americans afford coverage.
Joyce has several Republicans in his corner, including outgoing Gov. John Kasich, a former rival for the 2016 nomination. A surrogate for Kasich, Joyce called in support of the moderate governor’s efforts in Virginia when the state challenged House Republicans’ vote to impeach Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax.
Kasich’s Senate bid also comes up in campaign rhetoric; Joyce expressed gratitude for Kasich’s endorsement, saying, “It was very helpful.”
The Ohio Democratic Party has regularly launched robocalls, including one pointing out Trump’s absence. Meanwhile, former President Barack Obama has recorded radio ads for Democrats here.
Like Trump, Joyce repeatedly promised voters in the redrawn 12th District that he would abide by the will of the voters, that voters had not given him a mandate.
“We have a constitutional responsibility of governing, not running for president,” Joyce said. “The president has to do his job.”
Democrats have attacked him for voting against a bill that would provide an annual security fund, the so-called Secure Communities program, and urged voters to ask why. They have accused him of relying on New York City funding and the policy as he ran for the congressional seat in 2017.
Joyce’s attempt to temper expectations for his party’s likely nominee began on July 18, the day before Trump was to visit the district, and has continued in the weeks since.
In their minds, Joyce is a rare success story, thanks to his abilities to win over the district and get its conservative voters behind him. He promised voters in the redrawn 12th District, “If you re-elect me, you will not lose your health care.”