CLEVELAND — What was supposed to be an official White House visit to Cleveland by Republican President Donald Trump quickly morphed into a quasi-campaign event on Saturday just days before the primary election.
Trump hosted a roundtable at Public Hall that included eight people with stories of how the GOP tax plan has positively affected them. But between the official business and the non-sequiturs about immigration and trade, one of Trump’s main focuses was the man sitting next to him: U.S. Rep. Jim Renacci.
“We need his vote very badly,” Trump said. “He’ll be fantastic. I’ve known him for a long time.”
Renacci, a Republican from Wadsworth who is running for U.S. Senate, welcomed the visit and support from the president, but said he wasn’t involved in the planning or in asking him to come to Ohio.
Trump openly covets Ohio and sees it as essential to him winning a second term in office. He has already made five trips to the state as president, and Vice President Mike Pence has made several more.
So it’s no surprise the president entered the Senate race when he recently tweeted out support for Renacci. Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown’s seat, which Renacci is running for, is a pickup opportunity for Senate Republicans. And Brown has been mentioned as a possible 2020 challenger to Trump.
As such, Trump and the Republican establishment have bet everything on Renacci.
The optics of being so close to the president could give Renacci the boost he needs in the primary. He was by the president’s side all day — greeting him at the airport, attending a closed-press fundraiser at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Tower City and sitting just to his right during the roundtable.
Renacci was the White House’s choice to run for Senate after Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel dropped out without notice in January, citing a health issue with his wife.
While he was running for governor, Renacci positioned himself as the most pro-Trump candidate, and since switching races, he’s either appeared onstage with members of the administration or been noticeably in the crowd at Trump rallies.
White House visits are not supposed to involve campaign business, but that did not stop Trump — nor has it stopped him in the past — from campaigning for Renacci or slamming Brown.
“And he’s now, as you know, running for the Senate against Sherrod Brown, who does not think the way we think and — when it comes to borders, when it comes to so much,” Trump said. “And it’s also the vote, because they’re going to vote as a bloc. And the Democrats are very weak on borders, very weak on health care.”
Preston Maddock, Brown’s campaign spokesman, said Trump’s attacks were partisan falsehoods.
“Washington Republicans are launching false attacks against Sherrod because they’re backing Congressman Jim Renacci, who is drowning under a barrage of negative headlines about straw donor schemes, not paying his taxes, and undisclosed political donations he made while he was a registered lobbyist,” he said. “This won’t change the fact that Sherrod is fighting for Ohioans every day — including working with this administration and his Republican colleagues in the Senate when it’s best for Ohio workers.”
But Renacci still needs to make it out of his primary. Polling has shown him leading the race, but with only 25 percent support and half of voters undecided.
Renacci’s also showed depressed fundraising totals. The campaign released details showing he’d raised $4.5 million since he joined the race in January. It turned out that $4 million of that came from Renacci, who is independently wealthy.
His chief rival, Cleveland businessman Mike Gibbons, was in Renacci’s hometown of Wadsworth during the president’s visit campaigning. Chris Schrimpf, a spokesman for Gibbons, said voters would see through Renacci.
“Voters know that Mike Gibbons is the conservative outsider in the race and was a Trump-Victory co-chair in Ohio,” Schrimpf said. “Renacci is a Washington insider who voted to fund Planned Parenthood.”
Renacci, who for months was angling for a Trump endorsement while he was running for governor, said in an interview with cleveland.com following the roundtable that the president’s kind words for him further solidified he was the true pro-Trump candidate.
“Everyone knows the president supports me — has endorsed me,” Renacci said. “At this point, this was just adding — following up with what he said many, many times. He does support me. He’d like to see me in the Senate helping him get his agenda forward.”