Is This A Good Year To Be Running In Ohio As Trump's Candidate?

Jan 21, 2018

As recently as six weeks ago, Jim Renacci, the Republican congressman from Wadsworth in northeast Ohio, was gung-ho about running for governor of the state of Ohio, making speeches about how an "outsider" like him could come in and fix what's broken in Columbus.

Then, state treasurer Josh Mandel sent shock waves throughout Republican circles in Ohio and dropped out of the U.S. Senate race, which, if he had won the primary, would have been a rematch of his losing campaign in 2012 against Democratic incumbent Sherrod Brown.

And, a few days later, Renacci chucked his gubernatorial campaign, and entered the Senate race – at the behest of the political team in the Trump White House.

He has what could be serious competition in the GOP primary from Cleveland banker Mike Gibbons, who has been campaigning around the state for the better part of a year and has won endorsements from the county parties in Franklin and Clermont counties.

Renacci has made it clear he is going to run as the Trump candidate, hitching his wagon to a president who won Ohio in 2016 by about eight percentage points.

But, if he survives the primary, one thing he is going to find it hard to do is run against Brown as a "Washington outsider."

Pretty hard for a sitting congressman to pull that off.

In fact, David Niven, assistant professor of American politics at the University of Cincinnati, thinks it may be impossible.

"Part of Renacci's problem is that he spent all this time as a candidate talking about how he hates Washington and how non-political he is,'' Niven said. "But the fact is he has spent most of the last decade in Washington."

Brown came to the Senate from the House in 2006, defeating incumbent Republican senator Mike DeWine, who is now the leading candidate for the 2018 GOP gubernatorial nomination.

He ran in a very good year for Democrats; and was re-elected in 2012 over Mandel in a year when he ran with President Obama, who won Ohio.

Niven said 2018 could be another year that is kind to Brown. The party out of power in the White House usually does well in mid-term congressional elections. 

"Sherrod Brown has been extraordinarily lucky in that he has run in years that were good for Democrats,'' Niven said. "This could be another year like that. We haven't seen anything yet to say that that wouldn’t hold."

Renacci is likely to be helped in the GOP primary by the fact that he sticking close by the side of Donald Trump – in fact, he is the president's chosen candidate.

"Running with Donald Trump is the golden ticket for Republicans in the primary,'' Niven said. "The general election is a different matter. Renacci would have been a lot better off running with Trump in 2016.

"There is nothing I can see that makes it seem that this is going to be a good year to be Trump's wing man,'' Niven said. "In a general election, it may not be such a good idea to be hand-picked by Trump."

But first, Renacci has to survive the May primary against Gibbons.

Gibbons and Renacci have much in common on the face of it. Both are northeast Ohio Republicans and both area very successful and very wealthy businessmen.

Renacci starts out with more name recognition, but not a whole lot more.

Kyle Kondik, an Ohioan is who is managing editor of Sabato's Crystal Ball, a highly-regarded weekly politics newsletter published by the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, is not convinced that Renacci is unbeatable in a GOP primary. 

"Mandel was a candidate who didn't have a federal voting record that could come back to haunt him,'' Kondik said. "Neither does Gibbons. But Renacci has been in the House since 2011. I don't consider Jim Renacci a lock for the nomination."

Republican voters in Ohio, Kondik said, "have a long history of voting for Republican businessmen who are political novices. They win a lot. And that is what Gibbons is."

The Crystal Ball, published by the Center for Politics' director, Larry J. Sabato, has the Ohio Senate race as "leans Democratic."

"We have Brown as the favorite, but not an overwhelming one,'' Kondik said. "And it's possible that either Renacci or Gibbons might be stronger competition for Brown than Mandel. It's too early to say."

Kondik said Brown has one ace up his sleeve – in 2016, Donald Trump won over many of the blue-collar workers of southeastern and eastern Ohio who have supported Brown in the past because of his tough stance on international trade deals.

"Now, we'll see if those Trump voters come back to Sherrod," Kondik said. "That could make the difference."