Sen. Sherrod Brown and Republican challenger Jim Renacci do not have the same stark differences on foreign policy they have on taxes and health care, but Renacci is far more willing to support President Donald Trump’s international approach.
Although Brown has taken a more visible role in pushing for economic sanctions against Russia, Iran and North Korea, neither he nor Renacci seem comfortable with a hawkish assertion of American military power abroad, although each calls Russian President Vladimir Putin as a “thug.”
Both support Trump’s efforts to reach an agreement with North Korea to eliminate its nuclear weapons program with Renacci saying, “You have to meet with your enemies, you can’t just ignore them.”
And while Renacci pushed for congressional approval in 2012 of free trade agreements with South Korea, Panama, and Colombia, since Trump’s 2016 victory he has modified his trade views by saying “the one thing we have to change is these unfair trading policies with other countries.”
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This is Part 2 of a 3-part series looking at issues in the U.S. Senate race in Ohio.
PART 1: President Trump at center of Ohio’s U.S. Senate race
By doing so he is trying to compete with Brown on international trade, a monumental challenge because as a member of the U.S. House and Senate, Brown has made a career of opposing virtually every free trade agreement signed by the United States – from the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico in 1993 to the agreements with South Korea, Panama and Colombia.
Except for 2006 when Brown defeated Republican Sen. Mike DeWine of Ohio in large part because DeWine approved President George W. Bush’s request to use force in Iraq in 2003, foreign policy and national security rarely decide the outcome of Senate races in Ohio.
But with Syria imploding under the brutal rule of Bashar al-Assad, Trump’s quarrels with traditional U.S. allies and his resurrection of the 1930s isolationist slogan “American First,” the next senator from Ohio will face difficult votes on national security.
“America First does not mean America without its friends,” said Renacci of Wadsworth. “I think that’s the key. We do have to look at America and make sure we have a prosperous America and a strong America, but at the same time we should be looking at our friends.”
By contrast, Brown complained that “clearly the president seems more comfortable with the world’s dictators like Putin, the Saudis, the Chinese and the Turkish leader than our traditional allies in Canada and Western Europe.”
Throughout his years in the House and first term in the Senate, Brown was deeply skeptical of foreign involvement with the exception of his 1999 vote to support of President Bill Clinton’s request to use force in Kosovo, and Bush’s request in 2001 to use military force against al-Qaeda in Afghanistan.
In the fall of 2002, Brown opposed a House resolution authorizing the use of force to topple Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. And by 2009, Brown was weary of the seemingly endless conflict in that war-torn country, saying he was “skeptical about deploying more American troops.”
In 2010, Brown urged Senate approval of a pact to reduce the nuclear arsenals of the U.S. and Russia.
“This is too important for American-Russian relations, it’s too important to the safety of the country, and it’s important to get the Russians to work with us to make sure Iran doesn’t get a nuclear weapon,” Brown said at the time.
But Putin’s occupation of Crimea in 2014, his support for Russian separatists in Ukraine, and his apparent meddling in the 2016 presidential election has prompted Brown to use his perch on the Senate Banking Committee to push for tougher economic sanctions against Russia.
Last year, Brown helped write a bill to impose new sanctions on Russia, North Korea and Iran while simultaneously preventing Trump from scrapping Russian sanctions without congressional approval.
When the measure passed the Senate, 98-2, Brown approached Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona on the Senate floor and asked if Trump would veto it. McCain mischievously replied, “I hope so,” a reference that the Senate would easily override a president veto.
The same bill swept the House by a margin of 419-3, but Renacci was one of 11 lawmakers who did not cast a vote. Although he said at the time he supported the measure, the day of the vote he joined Trump at a rally in Youngstown.
Trump has hovered over the Senate race in Ohio, which both parties see as pivotal in determining control of the Senate next year. Brown castigated Trump earlier this year when at a summit in Helsinki, Trump seemed to side with Putin and against U.S intelligence, which claimed Russian officials in 2016 attempted to damage the presidential campaign of Democrat Hillary Clinton.
“Almost every Republican senator I’ve talked to thinks there is something really strange about Putin and Trump’s relationship and that Putin has something on Trump or some kind of power over Trump,” Brown said.
By contrast, Renacci was milder, saying “based upon US intelligence reports, it appears Russia was involved either directly or indirectly with the 2016 election process, but I don’t believe their involvement affected the outcome of the election.”
In 2013, neither Brown nor Renacci displayed much enthusiasm for giving President Barack Obama approval to launch missile strikes against Assad for using chemical weapons against rebels attempting to topple his regime.
But Renacci welcomed Trump’s decision last year to fire nearly 60 cruise missiles into Syria after the regime used chemical weapons against Syrian rebels.
“Look the situation in Syria is tragic, and hundreds of thousands of men, women and children have died,” Renacci said. “And Assad is a responsible for that. He is a puppet of the Russians and Iranians.”
“I was glad to see President Trump’s air strikes in Syria,” Renacci said. “I was concerned that President Obama drew a red line and didn’t follow through.”
Ironically, Brown – despite his tough talk about Russia – said “we really need Russia” to help devise a peaceful solution to Syria. “At the same time Trump doesn’t want to offend Putin, Trump is getting nothing from Putin in Syria.”
On trade, Renacci has only faced a handful of major votes during his four terms in the House. But he insisted the South Korean trade agreement was “good for Ohio.” Last year, Ohio companies and farmers exported $1.1 billion worth of goods to South Korea with farmers selling $26 million worth of soybeans to South Korea compared to just $5.1 million in 2015.
By contrast, Brown has urged Trump to re-negotiate the South Korean deal, even airing a 30-second commercial boasting he voted “against trade deals with Colombia and South Korea.”