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Jim Renacci wins U.S. Senate primary, setting up challenge to Sherrod Brown in the fall

By Stephen Koff • Updated May 9, 2018 at 8:27 AM

WASHINGTON -- Jim Renacci won Ohio's Republican primary Tuesday for U.S. Senate, setting the stage for a high-stakes conservative-vs.-liberal race against Democratic incumbent Sen. Sherrod Brown in the fall.

President Donald Trump, who endorsed Renacci, wants Brown gone, saying just last weekend that Brown "does not think the way we think." Many Ohio Republicans say the same.

But Renacci might not be able to count on every Trump voter sticking with the GOP this year, considering Brown's appeal in past elections to blue-collar voters and crossover union households. Brown has pushed every challenger he's faced in the last two and a half decades onto a pile of the disappointed. A victory in November would make Renacci, currently a House of Representatives member, a rare exception.

Renacci predicts he'll be just that. In a tweet Tuesday night, he said, "I'm coming for you, Sherrod Brown."

"For those who voted for a different candidate in this race , I'm committed to earning your support in the weeks and months ahead," Renacci said in a statement after expressing gratitude to primary supporters. "Ohio deserves a voice in this Senate seat who will support rather than obstruct the president's agenda, and who will fight for Ohio families and businesses rather than the liberal special interests that Sherrod Brown serves in Washington.

"I will be that voice for Ohio and I look forward to delivering that change in November."

With nearly all Ohio precincts counted Tuesday night, Renacci won the Republican primary with a plurality of 47.4 percent of the vote.

Running behind Renacci in the primary were Mike Gibbons, a Cleveland investment banker (winning 31.69 percent of the votes counted); Melissa Ackison, a Marysville business owner (13.05 percent); Dan Kiley, a former financial adviser from the Cincinnati area (3.99 percent), and Don Elijah Eckhart, a former government fiscal analyst from Galloway (3.88 percent).

Gibbons, conceding his loss, said, "Tonight, Ohio has spoken. And it didn't turn out our way. But we came from nowhere. I started as an unknown. Just some business guy from Cleveland. And I'm proud of the campaign we ran - a grassroots campaign. I'm proud of the team we put together... Thank you, Ohio."

Brown had no primary challenger.

Ahead now for Renacci and Brown are months of fundraising for a November contest that could cost tens of millions of dollars, and that's not counting third-party spending on ads that are expected to swamp Ohio's airwaves. Brown already has $12.2 million on hand, to Renacci's $4.2 million, much of the latter a loan from the candidate himself, according to Federal Election Commission filings.

This is Renacci's first statewide election, but he has waged several smaller campaigns successfully before. An accountant, businessman and former Wadsworth mayor, he won his first campaign for Congress in 2010 after losing his Chevrolet dealership in the auto industry bailout that President Barack Obama's administration orchestrated. The bailout required industry consolidation and dealership closings -- and General Motors picked Renacci's dealership to close.

Democrats and industry analysts said the restructuring saved the American auto industry. Critics including Renacci said it put the government in the role of central planner, picking winners and losers. Unlike in other recent Brown races, Renacci's business background provides a real-world contrast for the coming general election.

It's not that Brown, who was in the House of Representatives prior to the Senate and has not amassed great wealth, hasn't faced multi-millionaires before. Mike DeWine, whom Brown defeated in 2006, first winning the Senate seat, and Josh Mandel, Brown's unsuccessful challenger in 2012, had family money. But neither DeWine nor Mandel had the by-the-bootstraps biography of Renacci, the first in his family to graduate from college -- and now, according to Roll Call, the 16th richest member of Congress. Renacci says he paid for his education by working as a truck driver and on a road crew.

Renacci is not a Tea Party, outsider-style candidate. But even with his establishment ways, he can tell personal and constituent stories about government standing in the way of what he and they thought best. He criticizes the Dodd-Frank financial bill and the Affordable Care Act, both written with Brown's input, as giving too much control to bureaucrats and interfering with community banks, small businesses, health insurers and consumers.

While Renacci accuses Brown of favoring big government, Brown will criticize Renacci over foreign trade. Brown railed against trade deals long before Trump did, and that will stand in contrast to Renacci's support in the House for trade agreements with Colombia, Panama and South Korea. Renacci will criticize Brown for voting against individual tax cuts, while Brown will criticize Renacci for supporting cuts that are only temporary, in contrast to permanent tax cuts the Republican-led Congress gave to corporations.

So which candidate is more Trump-like? It's a worthy question considering Trump beat Hillary Clinton in Ohio by 8 percentage points in 2016.

Brown has been characterized by Washington media as having a lot in common with Trump because both criticize trade deals, both want more worker training and both want an expansive highway-and-bridge-building program.

But Brown is no Trump, nor vice versa. Even when agreeing on broad outlines, they differ considerably on the details, including how to pay for infrastructure. One similarity, however, stands above others: Brown is known in Ohio for the same populist appeal as Ohio voters saw in Trump in 2016.

Blue-collar, union-household voters -- the same ones who voted for Trump -- "like Sherrod," said David Cohen, a University of Akron political science professor. "They have always liked Sherrod. That's because Sherrod speaks their language and cares about the issues that are important to them."

Renacci is giving up a four-term House seat to run for Senate. A Republican win in Ohio could expand the Republican Party's narrow Senate majority if the GOP doesn't lose seats elsewhere. But expansion is far from certain, given the traditional difficulty of a president's party holding seats in midterm elections.

The relative popularity or public disfavor of Trump could bleed into the Senate election. A multi-pronged federal investigation related to Russian attempts to influence the 2016 presidential election has led to charges against former Trump advisers. This has intensified the nation's hyper-partisan political climate, with Trump calling the investigation a witch hunt.

Where Trump stands in the investigation by November could influence the Renacci-Brown contest.

"I think Trump's going to have a very large part in this race," Cohen said. "He'll have a very big impact."

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©2018 Advance Ohio Media, Cleveland

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