WASHINGTON — Even after more Republicans than Democrats voted in Tuesday’s primary, Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown begins the general election campaign as the favorite to win his third term against Republican Congressman Jim Renacci, who is making his first run for statewide office.
Although Renacci was urged to enter the race by White House officials and has been warmly embraced by President Donald Trump, he did not win 50 percent of the vote in a multi-candidate Republican battle.
He enters the fall campaign trailing Brown in campaign cash and name identification among voters. Brown, a two-term member of the U.S. Senate and a former Ohio secretary of state, is regarded as among the savviest politicians Ohio has produced.
"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 nonpartisan 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 that Renacci has every opportunity to close the gap against Brown. They point out that even as Democrats are approaching the November election with gusto, 161,000 more Republicans voted in the Senate primary than in the Democratic contest in which Brown was unopposed, prompting Republican consultant Corry Bliss in Washington to quip, "If a blue wave is coming, it ain’t coming to Ohio."
Barry Bennett, a Republican consultant in Washington who served as a senior adviser to 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."
Six years ago, Brown's opponents tossed tens of millions in dark money (given from undisclosed sources in unlimited amounts) into the effort to defeat him. That effort could be more intense this year as the GOP targets Democratic senators in states won by Trump.
As a member of the U.S. House from Wadsworth, Renacci has compiled a solidly conservative record. He supported a bill to reduce taxes by $1.5 trillion during the next decade and in 2016 voted to repeal the 2010 health-care law known as Obamacare, a bill blocked by President Barack Obama with a veto.
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 position against many of the same pacts.
In a sign of trying to align himself with Trump, Renacci said in a statement that 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."
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’s greatest obstacle is that he is a relative unknown throughout the state. Although he was backed by senior Republicans and won the endorsement of the Ohio Republican Party, he lost both Franklin and Licking counties to Republican challenger Mike Gibbons, a Cleveland businessman. The Franklin County GOP endorsed Gibbons.
"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 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 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."
Renacci originally wanted to run for governor, but he 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 (Election) Day," Cohen said.
But Cohen said there is no doubt that Renacci is the strongest possible challenger to Brown. He is wealthy and can raise large sums of money. 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.