The national landscape is rife with Democratic officeholders and candidates who proudly wear the “resist Trump” label. But in Ohio, Sen. Sherrod Brown is not being so bold.
Brown faces a challenge from Republican Rep. James B. Renacci, who made a campaign stop in Hillsboro a few days ago and dropped by the offices of the Times-Gazette. Most observers agree that Renacci’s effort to unseat Brown is an uphill battle but not an impossible one. Donald Trump won Ohio by eight points, and Renacci is hitching his candidacy firmly to President Trump’s bandwagon. He spent much of his visit to our newspapertouting his relationship with Trump, who endorsed himin the primary.
While an early pollshows Brown with a comfortable advantage, most observers expect the race to tighten come November. Over the weekend, Renacci touted a Trump super PAC pollshowing him trailing by just four points. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) recently told the Hillthat “I would certainly add Ohio to the list” of possible GOP pickups.
Brown, a former Ohio secretary of state and congressman before his election to the Senate in 2006, is at the left endof the political spectrum for a moderate swing state. So you’d expect the Renacci-Brown matchup to be the usual faceoff between a pro-Trump conservative and an anti-Trump “resistance” liberal.
But that’s not how Brown is playing it. News releasesfrom Brown’s office in recent months provide examples of the tightrope he’s trying to navigate. In mid-March, a subhead on a Brown release on opioid legislation blared, “President’s Plan includes Brown Initiatives to Boost Treatment.” A few days later, Brown issued a statementsaying he “welcomed news that the Trump Administration is taking steps to crack down on China’s violation of intellectual property laws,” adding, “Earlier this month, President Trump answered Brown’s call to crack down on unfair steel imports that have hurt the U.S. steel sector.” The week after, another Brown statementdeclared the senator “is applauding the Trump Administration’s work to renegotiate the Korea-U.S. Trade Agreement and block Korean steel dumping.” Similar words of praiseand various degrees of agreement with Trump have followed.
To be sure, Brown often includes caveats that make clear his differences with the president. And he is vocal in his oppositionto the tax-cut package passed last year and Trump’s approach to immigration. But while many Democratic candidates are proud to wear the resistance label, Brown wants nothing to do with it. It was telling that Brown’s first attack ad after the primary didn’t mention Trump. Instead, the ad — which PolitiFact rated “Mostly False”— accused Renacci of being a lobbyist while serving in Congress. And when I asked a Brown spokesman to respond to Renacci’s charge that Brown is an obstructionist to all things Trump, he was quick to highlight Brown’s work with Trump on issues such as opioids and trade.
Why? Brown understands that many Ohio voters — including his base of blue-collar workers, many of whom support the president — see Trump’s actions differently from the liberal national media and Democrats in the coastal blue states do. Rather than Trump abandoning Group of Seven allies, they see the president as finally standing up for the best interests of the United States. Rather than fixating on dwindling evidence of Russian collusion or obstruction of justice, they’re focused on the best economy in decades and a North Korean dictator pressured toreleaseprisoners and forced to the negotiating table by the president’s hard-line approach.
Statewide races in Ohio usually come down to turnout in the Democratic northern strongholds vs. enthusiasm in Republican southern counties. Can Brown play the occasional game of footsie with the president and still engender the anti-Trump fervor necessary to offset pro-Trump turnout for Renacci? If Brown hopes his occasional agreements with Trump will neutralize the president, he’s overlooking a lesson everyone should know by now: Trump will not be ignored. The midterms will be a referendum on Trump, state by state. If the media weren’t making sure of that, Trump would.
In Ohio, Renacci is all in with Trump. Brown is trying to keep a toe in the water, but that water could come to a boil very soon.