Republican former lobbyist Mike Carey has won a special election to represent Ohio’s 15th Congressional District. The race raised the profile of an otherwise typical off-year election dominated by local offices like city council or school board.

The contest was seen by some outside Ohio as one of the latest proxies for determining former President Donald Trump’s influence over GOP voters. But in the end, the reliably Republican seat offered few surprises.

In its 2021 partisan voter index, the Cook Political Report describes the district as favoring the GOP by nine points, and Cook’s U.S. House editor Dave Wasserman noted Trump won the district by 14. The district has not flipped since being drawn in 2011. Neither has any other Ohio congressional district in the last 10 years, with the party of the incumbent going 82-0 in that time. Ohio’s congressional delegation is split 12-4 Republican-to-Democratic.

While Franklin is the most populous county in the district that manages to claw together Columbus suburbs to the south and west like a giant hand making an ‘OK’ sign, the majority of voters live in one of the 11 other counties the district touches. That broad territory running from towns like Sabina in the west and out past Athens in the east gives the district a decidedly rural bent despite the suburban influence from Franklin County.

Carey’s victory was built on winning big in those rural counties, stacking up two or even three to one margins among voters in counties like Clinton, Vinton and Ross according to unofficial results. Russo ran up big margins of her own in left-leaning Athens County, but she didn’t notch the kind of overwhelming win she’d need in Franklin County to make up for weaker showings elsewhere.

The race was only on the ballot this year because Republican Steve Stivers resigned the seat earlier this year to lead the Ohio Chamber of Commerce. Stivers first won the seat in 2010 and won reelection handily in each successive race. But rather than run again in 2022, he joined the list of moderate Ohio Republicans, including Pat Tiberi, Anthony Gonzalez and Rob Portman, who found themselves displaced amid their party’s hard, Trump-ward shift.

Mike Carey started Election Day in Columbus area suburbs, greeting voters in Upper Arlington, Grove City and Hilliard. In videos posted to Twitter he urged supporters to head to the polls from a handful of stops around the sprawling southern Ohio district.

State Rep. Allison Russo, D-Upper Arlington, cast her vote Tuesday morning at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church with her family in tow. She described how getting results and having a voice in Washington were on the ballot, but admitted that, like any race, it would come down to turnout.

And turnout was up, relatively speaking, ahead of Election Day. Turnout was just a fraction of a typical even year congressional election, but in his final release of early and absentee voting data, Secretary of State Frank LaRose noted an 18% statewide increase compared to the last odd year election. Still, at the county level, early turnout results were mixed.

“I would say this is a pretty typical municipal election in an odd year,” Fairfield County Board of Elections director Brett Riffle said Monday afternoon.

Allison Russo with her family dropping off her ballot. (Photo by Nick Evans, OCJ.)

He explained a handful of voters were inside casting their ballots as he hung up signs announcing early voting had concluded. Another half dozen turned up just after the cut off.

In neighboring Pickaway County, though, board deputy director John Howley saw a noticeable uptick.

“One of the parties put out a mailer for absentee ballot applications, and it was money well spent because a lot of them got turned in,” he said, taking a break from loading up machines for Election Day.

He explained in a typical off year election they’d see between half and three quarters of the requests they received this year.

Pickaway County voters Gale Gloyd and Barbara Caldwell cast votes for Mike Carey.

“He was the only choice, as far as I was concerned,” Gloyd said.

Concerns about education and critical race theory were the primary motivator for Gloyd’s vote. Caldwell spoke highly of former Congressman Stivers, and cited the U.S. border as her biggest political issue.

Denny and Lori Barker, also from Pickaway County, cast votes for Carey as well and put veterans’ issues at the top of their list.

For those in Pickaway and Fairfield County who supported Allison Russo, one issue came to the fore — Carey’s ties to HB6.

Carey worked for Murray Energy which made donations to a dark money group controlled by former House Speaker Larry Householder to promote candidates crucial to passing the nuclear bailout measure. Murray Energy stood to gain from coal provisions contained in the bill.

In Fairfield, Pamela McQuade described Carey’s role in the HB6 “debacle” as the main issue that drove her decision. Stuart Michles from Pickaway voiced similar concerns about Carey being “mixed up somewhat” in the controversy.

“Which sadly to say is too normal,” Michles said with a bitter laugh.

This story originally ran in the Ohio Capital Journal.

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