Tuesday is primary day in Ohio, and one of the most heated races in the state is for the Senate seat currently occupied by Democrat Sherrod Brown. Congressman Jim Renacci will face Cleveland investment banker Mike Gibbons in the GOP primary in their quest to take on the uber-liberal Brown in the fall. Both are trying to rally Trump supporters to their cause, hoping to win their votes on Tuesday. Renacci, an ardent fan of the president, cites President Trump’s endorsement as a reason for Trump voters to support him. Gibbons, also an ardent Trump supporter and the co-chair of his fundraising efforts in Ohio in 2016, says Trump supporters should vote for him. The president’s diehard fans are divided, while the candidates continue to exchange barbs—and lawsuits—in the days leading up to the election.
Renacci, who aligned himself with then-candidate Trump right before Republican National Convention, says he is the candidate who can best help to advance the president’s agenda. Since announcing that he’d be entering the Senate race, Renacci has received Trump’s explicit endorsement (via a tweet, of course) and has appeared numerous times with both Trump and Vice President Mike Pence. On Saturday Renacci sat at Trump’s right hand during a Cleveland forum on taxes.
Chris Schrimpf, spokesperson for Gibbons, told PJM, “Voters know that Mike Gibbons is the conservative outsider in this race.” He added that Gibbons is “not a career politician, unlike Jim Renacci.” Schrimpf said that Gibbons “also has a plan to have Mexico pay for the [border] wall.”
Gibbons, a political newcomer, entered the race to challenge conservative favorite Josh Mandel, the current state treasurer, in the primary. After Mandel dropped out, citing family reasons, Renacci, who had already announced he was running for governor of Ohio, announced that he was switching to the Senate race at the request of the White House.
“While my strong distaste for Washington and the political establishment is as fervent as ever, so too is my commitment to advancing the President’s agenda for a stronger and more prosperous America,” Renacci wrote in an email to supporters at the time. “And for that reason I’ve agreed to answer the call to service and enter the race for United States Senate.”
There are several other candidates in the race, including Melissa Ackison, a Marysville businesswoman who claims to be the most conservative candidate, but Gibbons and Renacci are thought to be the real contenders. And both are depending on GOP Trump voters to get them across the finish line tomorrow.
While many Trump supporters have jumped on the Renacci bandwagon, others are accusing him of being part of the D.C. swamp.
Ralph King, a Cleveland political activist and Trump delegate, told PJM that Renacci “has always been a GOP establishment guy since he first ran for Congress and now he paints himself as a Johnny Super Conservative and champion of Jim Jordan and the Freedom Caucus guys.” King, the former head of Cleveland Tea Party Patriots, cited Renacci’s membership in the moderate Tuesday Group and the Mainstreet Republican Partnership as reasons to question his conservative credentials.
Renacci told PJM, “I’m a member of every group that I can belong to down here.” He says he joins the various groups so he can “see what they’re talking about” and learn about the policies they’re advancing. He pays dues to the groups and sends staff members to the meetings, but does not participate in them himself, Renacci said.
While King complains that Renacci has “publically taken to task many members of the Freedom Caucus,” Rep. Jim Jordan, a founding member of the Freedom Caucus, has endorsed Renacci.
King claims the president, whom he still fervently supports, was “duped” into supporting Renacci the same way he was duped into supporting Luther Strange for the Alabama primary. Trump supported Strange in his primary election against the infamous Roy Moore, who went on to lose the general election in the dependably red state of Alabama. “I think you will have the same results,” in the general election in Ohio, King said.
Doug Deeken is also an enthusiastic Trump supporter—and he’s supporting Renacci. “Renacci had a full career in the private sector before running for Congress,” Deeken, chairman of the Wayne County Republican Party, told PJM. “He doesn’t need a government job to get along. In fact, being a congressman is almost certainly a net negative on his earnings/worth.” He pointed out that Renacci is essentially term-limiting himself by choosing to leave Congress after two terms. “If Renacci were part of the swamp, he’d stay in Congress. A few more terms and he’d probably get to be chair of [the] Ways and Means [Committee],” said Deeken. “Instead he is gambling it all to take on Brown.”
Renacci also pushed back against charges that he’s part of the D.C. swamp. He told PJM, “I am the only candidate endorsed and supported by the president. In a crowded field of Trump supporters, the president understands that I am a partner to the [Trump] administration and am the only primary candidate with the record to beat Sherrod Brown in November.”
Renacci added, “I am a 30-year businessman who went to Washington because the federal government took my car dealership away from me.”
“My private sector experience mixed with my knowledge of how Congress works are the perfect combination to make me a productive and effective senator in Ohio,” said Renacci. “I’m proud to have gained the support I have in such a short time and will continue to serve as a partner to the president to make America great again.”
In addition to the president’s support and the endorsement of Jim Jordan, Renacci has earned endorsements from the Ohio Republican Party and Ohio Senator Rob Portman, as well as a mixed group of Congress members including Steve Chabot, Brad Wenstrup, Bob Latta, Bill Johnson, Warren Davidson, Mike Turner, Dave Joyce, and Steve Stivers, according to Ballotpedia.
Gibbons has been endorsed by the We the People tea party group and Joy Padgett, chairwoman of Ohio Women for Trump.
According to Open Secrets, as of April 31, Renacci had raised $4.4 million and had only spent $836,974 of that while Gibbons had raised $2.2 million on April 18 and had already blown through $1.9 million. Meanwhile, incumbent Sherrod Brown, who is unopposed in the primary, has raised $20 million and still has $12 million cash on hand for the general election.
A poll released by Baldwin Wallace University last week showed that more than half (55 percent) of Republican voters in Ohio were undecided. Among those who had decided on a candidate, 25 percent support Renacci, 11 percent support Gibbons, and 4 percent favor Ackison. The sample size in that poll, however, was small—a mere 811 voters. Both candidates declined to disclose internal polling numbers to PJM.
The issues of tariffs and abortion threaten to sway voters into one camp or the other on Tuesday.
Last year the AP reported that Gibbons said he was “a pro-people person who’s not dogmatic” when it came to social issues like abortion. While he claimed he personally opposed abortion, he didn’t feel qualified to weigh in on the issue because he’s not a woman. After the comment was reported, Gibbons released a statement saying that he supports defunding Planned Parenthood and wants to see Supreme Court justices who will overturn Roe v. Wade. Renacci, meanwhile, has voted to pass the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act and the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act in Congress.
The Gibbons campaign, however, told PJM that Renacci voted to “fund Planned Parenthood,” referring to the $1.1 trillion omnibus spending bill for 2016.
Ohio Right to Life has endorsed Renacci, while the Right to Life Action Coalition of Ohio has thrown its support behind Gibbons. Renacci has a 100 percent voting record with National Right to Life.
The candidates also differ on Trump’s trade policies, with Gibbons supporting them fully and Renacci taking a more measured approach, saying he wants to protect Ohio farmers and other citizens in the state.
Looking ahead to November, the political prognosticators at The Cook Political Report, Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball have both placed the state in the “lean Democratic” category.
Follow me on Twitter @pbolyard