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Former U.S. Rep. Jim Renacci announces campaign for Ohio governor, challenging incumbent Gov. Mike DeWine

Published: Jun. 9, 2021 at 5:42 PM EDT
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COLUMBUS (Enquirer) - Three years ago, former U.S. Rep. Jim Renacci dropped out of the governor’s race to run a half-hearted U.S. Senate bid.

Now he’s back to challenge incumbent Gov. Mike DeWine, according to our media partners at the Enquirer.

“Ohio cannot afford for Mike DeWine to be the governor anymore,” Renacci said in a Wednesday interview. “My path may have been diverted in 2018 but my will really to change Ohio was not.”

Renacci, 62, of Wadsworth, is banking on Republicans’ anger toward DeWine, who closed businesses, schools and even the polls to slow the spread of COVID-19. For some Republicans, Ohio would have been better off with a governor like South Dakota’s Kristi Noem or Florida’s Ron DeSantis who imposed few restrictions.

Renacci, who announced his bid on WTAM 1100, said he never would have hired Ohio Department of Health director Dr. Amy Acton, who early in the pandemic “guestimated” that 100,000 Ohioans had already contracted COVID-19.

“That was a scare tactic. That scared people,” Renacci said.

DeWine’s hold on the GOP electorate has some cracks. Conservative activists have protested DeWine’s health orders outside his Cedarville home. DeWine’s running mate Jon Husted was booed at a then-President Donald Trump rally for recommending masks. A Republican lawmaker even tried to impeach DeWine.

“In Mike DeWine’s Ohio, our state has lost ground. Corruption is up. We’re ranked No. 1 and our state can’t compete in the national economy,” said Renacci, referencing the arrest of former Speaker Larry Householder and the FBI search of a DeWine-appointed utility regulator.

The Trump card?

Trump hinted at a primary for DeWine last November after the Ohio governor suggested Trump should start the transition to President-elect Joe Biden: “Who will be running for Governor of the Great State of Ohio? Will be hotly contested!”

Renacci has a message for those conservative, Trump-loving voters: I’m your guy.

“Trump is still a friend,” Renacci said. “I think in the end if I get an opportunity to talk with him, which I’m hoping to be able to do that, he’ll see that Jim Renacci has a really good opportunity.”

Even if DeWine is vulnerable to a primary challenge, Republicans would need a candidate who can translate that anger into votes, said Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics.

“Maybe Renacci is that candidate,” he said. “He didn’t run really at all a strong Senate race in 2018 although I don’t know if his heart was ever in it because I think he always wanted to be governor.”

Renacci ran an unimpressive campaign in 2018, spending about $4.6 million to Brown’s $27.8 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Renacci didn’t tap into his personal wealth, as promised, to fuel that campaign.

Renacci said he was left to fend for himself in that race despite promises of financial help from individuals and organizations.

“When you have 45 years history in the state and you have a war chest of close to $20 million, it’s very difficult to upset somebody if you don’t get any help but I am very proud of the race I ran,” Renacci said.

Renacci has some Trump credentials. Former Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale is advising Renacci’s gubernatorial bid. Trump also endorsed Renacci’s 2018 bid against Democrat Sherrod Brown, which the incumbent senator won by 6 percentage points. But a Trump endorsement isn’t guaranteed in 2022; Renacci will have to earn it.

Political outsider?

Despite his appeals to Trump voters, Renacci isn’t a political outsider, having served in Congress for eight years and as mayor of Wadsworth before that. Some of the more anti-establishment Republicans have latched on to Joe Blystone, a cowboy hat-wearing Canal Winchester farmer with no political experience.

He also took some hits in the 2018 Senate race. He was dinged for flying in a Cleveland strip-club owner’s plane to campaign events across the state that year. In some instances, Renacci never reimbursed him for the flights.

Renacci said the man owned a strip mall, not a strip club. “All I would do is laugh at that,” he said.

The race also brought up his past ties to North Canton businessman Ben Suarez, who was initially charged with violating campaign finance laws but later convicted of witness tampering. Suarez employees donated $100,000 each to Renacci and former Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel and both advocates for Suarez’s business, which was facing a lawsuit.

Renacci said Suarez was never indicted and Renacci returned the money.

But in 2021, Renacci has taken steps to launch a viable campaign, building up staff and hosting town halls. Renacci has called on the Ohio Republican Party to not endorse DeWine. He has repeatedly tweeted about how the DeWine administration has failed Ohioans.

Time will tell whether these efforts are enough to unseat the sitting Republican governor whose name recognition and fundraising are second to none in Ohio. The winner will likely face either Democratic Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley or Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley in the fall.

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