Jessica Wehrman Dispatch Washington Bureau
Sep 2, 2018 at 9:21 PM
WASHINGTON — Sen. Sherrod Brown and Rep. Jim Renacci are the names on Ohio’s ballot for the U.S. Senate in November, but a third name — President Donald Trump‘s — might as well be listed, too.
The Dispatch is kicking off a three-week series on major issues in the Senate matchup. And the candidates‘ stances on Trump present perhaps the sharpest divide between the two.
Trump, a larger-than-life lightning rod who seems to cause news alerts on a minute-to-minute basis, won Ohio by percentage points in the 2016 presidential election.
To supporters, he’s the blunt-talking businessman America needs, a man unafraid to stir up controversy to shake up the status quo.
To detractors, he’s a bully, a man ill-informed about many of the policies he’s instituting, one who surrounds himself with corrupt sycophants and is more comfortable with lies than reality.
The two Senate candidates have reflected the voters’ deep disconnect — to an extent.
Renacci, who entered the Senate race in January after Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel abruptly dropped out because of his wife‘s illness, cited Trump’s encouragement in deciding to run. He ran ads in the GOP primary touting Trump’s record and even echoes Trump’s “America First” agenda with his own “Ohio First” campaign slogan.
He does so even though his record on trade can be at odds with Trump’s sweeping skepticism toward many trade deals for which Renacci voted. Renacci is concerned about Trump‘s tariffs, saying he wants them to be used as a negotiating tool and not to hurt Ohioans, and he voted against a Trump-endorsed spending bill that he found fiscally irresponsible. He also opposed the administration‘s policy of separating undocumented immigrant families.
But it’s the tone that’s the most different. David Cohen, a political science professor at the University of Akron, said Renacci is a “free-trading, pro-business Republican,” while Brown, like Trump, has made blue-collar voters a centerpiece of virtually every campaign he has run.
“Renacci is one of the wealthiest members in Congress,” Cohen said. “It’s hard for him to make that argument that he’s a friend of the working class.”
Brown, meanwhile, considers Trump a frequent source of outrage, speaking out against the president‘s immigration policies and many of his nominees.
But Brown and Trump have been in step on many trade issues. Brown said he’s not sure that Trump gets the nuances of the issue — Brown wrote a 228–page book on the subject in 2004 — but he’s happy that Trump’s instincts on trade line up with his.
Brown‘s approach has been to try to work with Trump when possible, such as on the opioid crisis, while understanding that he will also occasionally stand diametrically opposed to many of the president’s policy ideas.
Brown also has forged a relationship with Trump‘s trade ambassador, Ashtabula native Robert Lighthizer, and worked on a handful of bills that Trump has signed, including one to try to stem the flow of fentanyl into the country.
Still, of the two candidates, Renacci is the one inextricably linked to the president.
“Renacci has absolutely hitched his car to the Trump train,” Cohen said.
But Renacci‘s loyalty to Trump comes with heartburn: Days after Renacci entered the campaign, he was asked to defend Trump’s reported reference to Third World countries in scatalogical terms.
“I’ve said all along the president many times says what people are thinking,” Renacci said on Fox News, in comments his spokeswoman said were targeted at Trump’s blunt nature and not meant to be an endorsement of the president‘s word choice.
Since then, Renacci has honed his response into what might as well be a second campaign slogan: Judge Trump by what he does, not by what he says.
“I don’t agree with many of the ways he says things, or the way he says things, but in the end, I’m very supportive of his policies,” Renacci said.
Cohen said Brown’s success in 2016 might hinge on whether the same blue-collar voters who backed Trump in 2016 flip to support the Democratic senator this year.
Brown does not seem worried. “I got a lot of those voters in 2012 and 2006,” he said. “And we’ll get them this time.”
Renacci, meanwhile, finds himself, like many other Republicans, frequently defending Trump. One August afternoon saw former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort being found guilty of eight criminal counts and former Trump attorney Michael Cohen pleading guilty to eight criminal counts, including two that directly implicated the president.
Renacci was asked to react. “There’s no evidence of collusion, no allegation of wrongdoing against President Trump,” he said.
“I’ve had a lot of attorneys in my life who have done some bad things afterward,” Renacci said. “That doesn’t reflect on me. That reflects on them and their character and how they do things. … In the end, none of this should reflect on what the president is doing, his agenda and him moving his agenda forward.”
Brown expressed concern about the legal developments but reiterated: He does not want to impeach Trump.
“I’ll just say it this way,” he said. “A lot of Republican senators tell me they think there’s something really untoward about Putin and Trump.”
But they say it only privately, he said, suggesting that Republicans who don’t speak out are “spineless.”
Still, he‘s not willing to go out on a limb by calling for impeachment.
“I don’t think about it,” he said. “And no president has ever been impeached by his own party when his own party’s in the majority. That’s just not going to happen, and I don’t see it happening anytime soon. But I want to stop a lot of his policies when they hurt workers, when they hurt my state.”
Renacci said the Trump he knows stands in sharp contrast to the public perception of him. The man Renacci has gotten to know, he said, wants his children and grandchildren to live in a country that’s thriving.
“If you had the chance to sit around with President Trump for 40 minutes. … I promise you, you would say, ‘I like that guy,’” he said.
Brown is less effusive. He’s been invited to the White House more than once and has spoken twice with Trump on the phone: a 30-minute conversation about trade a few weeks back, and one on “Buy America” provisions in February.
During the first call, the conversation was really more about the election. Trump reminded Brown that he’d won Ohio in 2016, and he recounted beating 16 other Republicans in the primary. He also asked if Brown had attended any of his presidential-campaign rallies.
Did Brown like talking to him?
“Compared to my dentist?” Brown joked.