By John Whitesides and Ginger Gibson
(Reuters) - Republican candidates backed by Donald Trump clung to small leads in closely watched races in Ohio and Kansas on Wednesday, with the narrow margins serving as encouraging signs for Democrats heading into November's elections.
Republicans looked likely to hold onto a U.S. House of Representatives seat in a reliably conservative district in Ohio, where Troy Balderson led Democrat Danny O'Connor by about 1,700 votes in a special election. The final result could be days away as state officials count more than 8,000 provisional and absentee ballots.
In a Kansas primary in the governor's race, staunch Trump ally and conservative firebrand Kris Kobach held a lead of less than 200 votes over current Governor Jeff Colyer, but a final tally could take days or weeks.
Kobach sought to declare himself the virtual winner, saying at a press conference on Wednesday afternoon that he will begin campaigning as the victor. He also said he spoke with the White House on Wednesday and with Trump on Tuesday but declined to detail the conversations.
The narrow margin in Ohio - less than 1 percentage point separates Balderson and O'Connor - is little comfort for Republicans looking ahead to the Nov. 6 vote, as they outspent Democratic groups by more than 4 to 1 to retain a seat they have held for three decades.
"Moving forward, we cannot expect to win tough races when our candidate is being outraised," said Corry Bliss, executive director of the Congressional Leadership Fund, a Republican Super PAC. "Any Republican running for Congress getting vastly outraised by an opponent needs to start raising more money."
Democrats performed dramatically better than expected in the last federal special election before the midterms, when Republicans are defending majorities in both the House and Senate.
"This gives me optimism," Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez told CNN on Wednesday.
Trump took credit for Balderson's lead, writing on Twitter that his fellow Republican's campaign took "a big turn for the better" after he campaigned for him in the district on Saturday. Mark Weaver, a Columbus-based Republican strategist who did not work for Balderson, said Trump's visit helped fuel the party's get-out-the-vote efforts in the race's final days.
He added, however, that it will be harder to replicate that effort nationwide in November when Trump and outside groups cannot focus on one specific race.
Other Republicans, including Vice President Mike Pence and Ohio Governor John Kasich, had also rushed to Balderson's aid in a district Kasich once represented.
Tuesday's vote mirrored special elections through 2017 and 2018, with suburban and urban turnout rates that have favored Democrats exceeding turnout in rural areas where Trump has a higher level of support.
"If one side of the political divide sits on its hands in November, it will be a real problem for that party. And we know it won't be the Democrats," Weaver said.
Trump won the Ohio district by 11 percentage points in the White House race in 2016. Republican Pat Tiberi resigned before finishing his term, triggering the special election.
The Ohio secretary of state's office said it could not yet declare a winner. Absentee and provisional ballots cannot be counted for 11 days; an automatic recount occurs if the margin is within 0.5 percent of votes cast.
On Wednesday, O'Connor declined to say whether he would seek a recount if one was not automatically triggered. No matter the outcome, he and Balderson will face off again in November to serve a full two-year term.
Democrats need to win 23 more seats in the House and two in the Senate to control Congress and put the brakes on Trump's agenda. All 435 House seats, 35 of 100 Senate seats and 36 of 50 governors' offices are up for grabs in November.
KANSAS RACE NEARLY DEADLOCKED
Kobach, Kansas' secretary of state who was endorsed by Trump in the waning days of the primary race, and Colyer each had about 41 percent of the vote on Wednesday.
Kobach acknowledged that the counting of absentee and provisional ballots may result him ultimately losing.
Kansas state law allows for a recount if the vote margin is within half a percentage point, but the candidate has to request the recount. The candidate who requests the recount must pay for it if the results are unchanged by the recount process, Kobach said.
Absentee ballots must be postmarked by Tuesday and received by Friday; it is unknown how many ballots may be outstanding.
The recount process could take weeks and could be complicated as different counties in Kansas use different voting systems, said Patrick Miller, a political science professor at the University of Kansas.
"There is the potential out there for a recount to shift a number of voters given the margins," Miller said.
Kobach, who in his current role as secretary of state is responsible for overseeing elections, dismissed the need to recuse himself from the process.
"There are multiple safeguards," Kobach said.
Democrats are hoping to capitalize on dissatisfaction with deep tax cuts passed by former Republican Governor Sam Brownback that led to a state fiscal crisis. Colyer was appointed to the seat after Brownback left office to serve in the Trump administration.
Kobach has led a crusade to end what he describes as rampant voter fraud, even though very few cases have been prosecuted in the United States. He served as the co-chairman for a panel convened by Trump to investigate voter fraud, which was later disbanded after most states declined to share information with the panel.
Three other states held nominating contests on Tuesday, including a battle for governor in Michigan in which mainstream Democratic candidate Gretchen Whitmer beat progressive Abdul El-Sayed. Whitmer received more than half of the vote as Democrats angle to take back the governor's office in that Midwestern state.
(Reporting by John Whitesides, Ginger Gibson and Brendan O'Brien; additional reporting by Susan Heavey; Writing by David Gaffen; Editing by Colleen Jenkins, Jonathan Oatis and Cynthia Osterman)