Republicans hoping to land a punch on Sen. Sherrod Brown and deny the Ohio Democrat a third term in November were encouraged by last week’s election, when far more Republicans voted in their multi-candidate Senate primary than Democrats in their primary, where Brown was unopposed.
“If a blue wave is coming, it ain’t coming to Ohio,” quipped Republican consultant Corry Bliss, noting the disparity in the vote totals.
But Democrats saw reason to cheer the results as well. Rep. Jim Renacci, R-Wadsworth, won the Republican Senate primary despite receiving less than 50 percent of the vote. And newcomer and political unknown Mike Gibbons ran surprisingly strong against Renacci, receiving more than 31 percent of the vote and even winning Franklin County.
Democrats also feel confident because of Brown, a two-term member of the U.S. Senate and a former Ohio Secretary of State who enters the fall race with more money in the bank and huge edge in name identification.
“Brown has sort of figured out the recipe for the secret sauce, whatever that is, that you can be a progressive Democrat and a populist in a way that does not alienate more moderate Democratic voters,” said Jennifer Duffy of the non-partisan Cook Political Report in Washington.
“Brown is a survivor,” said Duffy. “He’s survived tough races before so he’s in very good shape going into this race. Renacci’s got a lot to prove as a challenger.”
John O’Grady, chairman of the Franklin County Democratic Party, delivered an even blunter assessment, saying the race is “a no brainer. Sherrod will walk away with it.”
Republicans counter Renacci has every opportunity to close the gap against Brown. Barry Bennett, a Republican consultant in Washington who served as a senior adviser to Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, said, “The entire theme of this race is whether or not Jim can convince the voters in Mahoning Valley and Appalachia — who have been conservative Democrats but voted for Trump — to (now) vote for him.”
“If he rallies them about changing Washington, he’ll win,” Bennett said. “Trump changed what the Republican Party looks like in Ohio geographically and that’s the new base.”
Ohio’s Senate race could grap a piece of the national spotlight. Republicans have a narrow 51-49 edge in the Senate, and while several other races around the country are seen as more competitive, Republicans could get a major, unexpected win by capturing Brown’s seat.
To do so, though, Renacci will have to overcome some serious obstacles, including one that has tripped up other politicians known regionally but not statewide.
“There’s a rule I have had forever and I call it the Ferraro rule in honor of Geraldine Ferraro,” said Dennis Eckart, a former Democratic congressman from Cleveland, referring to the late congresswoman who was the party’s vice presidential nominee in 1984. “As good as you think you are where you are, when you make a big step up, it frequently just doesn’t go very well.”
Eckart said Renacci “came from an uncontested district and an almost fawning media market where he was in the majority and didn’t have to work very hard. Now he is going from campaigning to a handful of counties to 88 counties in a Senate race which will be targeted as one of the key races in the country. Most of the people cannot make that jump.”
Of all the issues in the race, trade may be the one to watch.
Renacci compiled a solid conservative record during his years in the House, supporting a bill to reduce taxes by $1.5 trillion during the next decade and voting several times to repeal the 2010 health law known as Obamacare
But if trade emerges as a major issue in the race, Renacci will be at odds not only with Brown, but perhaps with Trump as well. During his first year in Congress in 2011, Renacci co-signed a letter to President Barack Obama urging approval of free-trade pacts with South Korea, Panama, and Columbia.
By contrast, Brown has built a career on vehemently opposing every major free-trade agreement signed by the United States. As a House member in 1993, Brown voted against the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico, and his opposition to free-trade agreements lines up with Trump’s hostility toward many of the same pacts.
In a sign of trying to align himself with Trump, Renacci said in a statement he shared Trump’s “concerns about unfair trade, including the global problem of overcapacity in steel and aluminum and the theft of American technology and innovation.”
“Free trade is important for countless Ohio businesses in being able to access foreign markets,” Renacci said. “However, if our trading partners aren’t playing by the rules, we need to hold them accountable to protect American jobs. We must put America First when other countries are distorting the market, and being ever vigilant not to create winners and losers along the way.”
But Renacci’s attempt to steer closer to Trump on trade prompted Brown campaign spokesman Preston Maddock to say, “If Congressman Renacci shared that concern, why does he support unfair trade deals that have put Ohio jobs at risk? He’s not being straight with voters because he can’t defend his record.”
Renacci originally wanted to run for governor, but opted for the Senate when state Treasurer Josh Mandel dropped out of the Senate race for family reasons. David Cohen, a professor of political science at the University of Akron, called Renacci a “Johnny-come-lately to the race.”
“While he’s well known in his district, he’s not well-known elsewhere, which Brown’s campaign has taken ample advantage of, sending out consistent, blistering attacks of Renacci well before Primary Day,” Cohen said.
But Cohen said there is no doubt Renacci is the strongest possible challenger to Brown. He is wealthy and can raise large sums of money. And he has a strong nod from Trump. Just days before the election, Trump said, “We need (Renacci’s) vote very badly. He’ll be fantastic. I’ve known Jim for a long time and he agrees with what we are doing.”
National analysts see the race as Brown’s to lose.
“Brown starts this race as a favorite,” said Kyle Kondik of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. “If you look at statewide races, Brown is clearly the Democrat who’s likeliest to win. If Brown doesn’t win, that probably means the statewide ticket is going down in flames.”