A week after their Senate candidate in Ohio dropped out, President Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell scrambled in meetings Wednesday at the White House and Capitol to find someone who could beat two-term Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown.
A day later, Rep. Jim Renacci answered Trump’s call, canceling his run for governor in announcing his bid for Senate, while other Republicans held out hope that J.D. Vance, the 33-year-old acclaimed author of Hillbilly Elegy, would get into the race despite having ruled it out in September.
But Republicans in Ohio are wary of the idea that either Renacci or Vance could beat the Democrat, even though Trump won the presidential campaign there by 8 points. Vance, whose memoir explored the resentment and challenges of the white working class in the Rust Belt, could face a backlash among Trump voters for having supported Evan McMullin, the independent conservative candidate, in 2016. And Renacci, a wealthy businessman representing the Cleveland suburbs in Congress, isn’t well known in the state.
“One can’t win the primary; the other can’t win the general,” said a Republican strategist familiar with the race.
With the president’s job-approval rating below 40 percent, Republicans have struggled to recruit Senate candidates this election cycle, as House members in Ohio, Montana, Wisconsin, and Michigan declined to take on Democratic senators. And on Thursday, Republican Rep. Kevin Cramer joined that group, announcing he would not challenge Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp in North Dakota, a state Trump won by over 35 points in 2016.
In Ohio, state Treasurer Josh Mandel had sought a rematch of his 2012 campaign against Brown, until he announced last week that he would step aside as his wife battles an undisclosed health issue. It wasn’t clear that he’d have succeeded even if he stayed in the race. Mandel had served in the Marines, city council, and the Ohio House of Representatives, and had won statewide races twice. But he also drew controversy for, among other things, spending nearly $2 million in taxpayer-funded TV commercials starring himself, and for siding with a pro-Trump promoter of the “Pizzagate” conspiracy, blogger Mike Cernovich, over the Anti-Defamation League, the Jewish civil rights group, in a dispute last summer.
Renacci could unify Republicans who weren’t enamored with the young, ambitious state treasurer, and he is favored to beat Mike Gibbons, a Cleveland banker, in the primary. GOP Rep. Pat Tiberi passed on a run for Senate in order to retire this year and lead the Ohio Business Roundtable. But he said in an interview that he’s encouraged both Renacci and Vance over the last year to run against Brown.
“Jim has an incredible story to tell—a rags-to-riches story, building multiple businesses, becoming very successful,” Tiberi said.
But GOP officials say he’s got a lot of work to do to introduce himself to voters across the state by the general election in November.
Republican Rep. Bob Gibbs told National Journal that Renacci enters the contest against Brown as the underdog, noting that his “name ID” is lower than Brown’s and Mandel’s in the state. “Sherrod will be tough to beat,” Gibbs said.
A major factor in Renacci’s decision was his meeting with Trump at the White House on Wednesday afternoon, according to Gibbs. “Most people don’t turn it down when the president of the United States calls you,” he said.
McConnell also recently spoke with Renacci and had a “good conversation,” according to a person familiar with the call. But the Republican leader also met with Vance in the Capitol on the same day Renacci met with Trump at the White House.
Democrats are watching the Republicans’ recruitment challenges with glee.
“McConnell’s got a candidate, Trump’s got a candidate—they ought to just let the Republican primary voters in Ohio figure it out,” Brown told National Journal.