Ohio Republican U.S. Senate candidates fight for Trump voters

Of the five Ohio Republicans vying for the chance to unseat Democratic U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown this fall, only one has the endorsement of President Donald Trump.

The question is, how much of a factor is that anymore?

Some of Trump’s endorsements have fallen flat. In Alabama, he endorsed Luther Strange in the GOP primary and Roy Moore in the special election. Both lost.

That hasn’t stopped Trump from pushing candidates he likes, and he made it official last week that the candidate he likes in Ohio is Rep. Jim Renacci, R-Wadsworth.

“I need Jim very badly to help our agenda and to keep MAKING AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!” Trump tweeted on Tuesday. “He will be a fantastic Senator for the Great State of Ohio, and has my full endorsement!”

An early shake-up brought Renacci out of the governor’s race and into the Senate primary fray when failed 2012 candidate and Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel announced he would withdraw from the 2018 Senate race due to his wife’s health.

“Would I have liked to have a two-year head start? Sure,” Renacci said in an interview with this newspaper. “But the momentum is building quickly.”

VOTER GUIDE: Read the candidates in their own words

Renacci, a former car dealer who has served in the U.S. House since 2011, is easily the best known of the Republican candidates. Brown is unopposed on the Democratic side and, for now at least, is a favorite to win in November. The oft-quoted Crystal Ball rating system for the University of Virginia Center for Politics lists Ohio's Senate race as "leans Democratic."

November is months away, however, so for now the Republicans are pointing to the May 8 primary. Along with Renacci, the ballot consists of Mike Gibbons of Cleveland, Melissa Ackison of Marysville, Don Elijah Eckhart of Galloway and Dan Kiley of Cincinnati.

Gibbons, a former investment banker, has run hard — making multiple appearances, sending out a flurry of press releases and purchasing both television and radio ads.

“Over the last 25 years I’ve been throwing things at my television set,” Gibbons said, explaining his candidacy. “I decided — my last son graduated from college last May — I want to go to Washington and tell the truth.”

Ackison, the lone woman in the race, has positioned herself as an advocate against the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare. She is the co-owner and managing partner of a surveying company in central Ohio and said she formerly owned a staffing company.

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Eckhart has centered his campaign on bringing Christian values to the federal government to fix “the spiritual problems in our nation’s capital.” He formerly worked in the city of Dayton and Montgomery County budget offices in the 1980s.

Kiley, a former financial planner, defines himself as “fiscally conservative and socially compassionate,” and says the most pressing problem facing the nation is the size of the national debt.

For this story, the newspaper sought interviews with all certified candidates, and Ackison, Gibbons, Kiley and Renacci agreed to interviews. Eckhart did not arrange for an interview. Every GOP candidate completed this newspaper’s online voter guide, which addresses a host of issues including immigration, climate, infrastructure, the 2016 election probe, Medicaid, and other matters.

The candidates identified two areas where they are divided: President Trump’s tariffs and how to address school shootings.

Trump tariffs

Renacci’s positions on tariffs have been recently challenging for him because Brown and Trump appear closely aligned. A recent Washington Post analysis found that “Trump’s trade moves are a growing political headache (for Renacci), forcing the candidate to explain his own past support for trade pacts and his concerns about the tariffs.”

Brown’s campaign has made a point of saying that he and Trump are working together on the tariffs.

“In this instance, what seems impossible not to point out is the fact that Jim Renacci has voted for unfair trade deals throughout his career and said we needed more free trade around the world,” said Preston Maddock, Brown’s spokesman, in a recent interview. “Both Senator Brown and President Trump … are working together on numerous issues, including the tariffs issue.”

Renacci says that while he’s fine with some tariffs, he must look out for Ohio’s interests, including those of farmers.

“Ohio has a lot of agriculture: soybean is a big example,” he said. “Ohio is the No. 2 exporter of soybeans and China is the No. 1 importer of soybeans, so in the end, we have to make sure we have free and fair trade. Remember, this president has to do what’s best for the country. As a senator or a representative I have to do what’s best for Ohio, and I think that will be the difference between me and the president, in the end, if there are any.”

Gibbons said he’s “all for what Donald Trump is doing” with tariffs.

“I believe President Trump recognizes a trade war with China probably isn’t a good thing,” Gibbons said. “I think he’s very, I guess, elegantly, throwing out some pretty radical changes that he’s going to negotiate a better deal for the U.S.”

Ackison said Trump is bringing “folks to the negotiating table” by enacting tariffs, and she criticized Renacci for not having a more defined position on the matter, comparing him to a car salesman “who won’t give you straight answers on just about anything.”

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“I was extremely supportive of the tariffs,” Ackison said. “Having a background in manufacturing and distribution, we’ve been in a trade war for a long time, and the United States is losing.”

Kiley, too, said he would “applaud President Trump for applying the tariffs.”

“Although the overall cost for steel and aluminum will be higher, this move should help U.S. companies who produce and sell these commodities become more cost competitive,” he said. “However, as other trade deals like NAFTA are renegotiated, the president should move forward prudently and carefully to avoid starting a major trade war with China and our other foreign trading partners.”

Eckhart is the sole Republican candidate to flatly reject the president’s tariffs.

“Instead of imposing tariffs, the United States should remain a proponent of free trade,” Eckhart said in the newspaper’s voter guide. “Even if deals are reached with individual countries, they will not be enough to protect every sector of our economy. The tariffs could hurt exporting businesses in Ohio if the country purchasing these goods counteracts U.S. tariffs.”

Second Amendment

Gibbons said he would work to change existing federal law deeming schools gun-free zones, and said he believes students age 18 and above should be able to carry long guns in high school, as recently suggested by state Rep. Niraj Antani, R-Miamisburg.

“I will attempt to change that,” Gibbons said of the gun-free schools law. “And I think that’s essential. … Now, I think it would be a little awkward if everybody is walking around with a rifle slung to their shoulder, and I hope we don’t end up with that situation.”

“I think there’s a middle ground there that will work,” Gibbons said. “I don’t think people are going to want to carry long guns around, but if somebody insists upon doing it, I believe they have a Constitutional right to do it.”

President George H.W. Bush enacted the Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990 after near-unanimous passage in both chambers. The law prohibits unauthorized individuals from knowingly possessing loaded or unsecured firearms at schools, but allows authorized individuals, such as law enforcement or — in Ohio’s case — qualified teachers and school staff to possess arms.

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Antani received backlash for his March comments, when Republican lawmakers including Attorney General Mike DeWine and U.S. Sen. Rob Portman said they support the current federal gun-free school law. The Buckeye Firearms Association director told this newspaper the organization has not advocated for students carrying firearms in schools and does not plan to do so.

Asked for his stance on the issue, Renacci said, “I do believe we need to look at everything.”

“I’m supportive of having hearings. I’m open to listening to both sides … Look, I’m not one of those guys that’s going to make a politically rash decision. I’m going to make an educated, informed decision with knowledge and background,” Renacci said.

Ackison said she would not be comfortable with students carrying at school.

“What I am comfortable with is allowing teachers with the comfortableness and training to be armed,” she said, adding that she would welcome seeing “military personnel” — including potentially the National Guard — protecting schools.

Kiley said “trained professionals should be hired to monitor school buildings,” and teachers who volunteer should be able to carry a concealed weapon in school.

“At the present time, high schools are a gun-free zone,” Kiley said. “I support the Second Amendment and I support the existing laws.”

In his voter guide answers, Eckhart said arming teachers “is not a workable idea, since their focus should be on educating the students. However, teachers and students should be informed about the signs of intruders who may commit violence.”

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