PERRYSBURG, Ohio — The Republican candidate returned to a party stronghold Saturday in his bid to unseat the Democratic incumbent. The incumbent, meanwhile, was across the state a day earlier, trying to make what once was a stronghold strong again for Ohio Democrats.
Labor Day marked the unofficial start of the of the campaign season — the time when the actual public tunes into elections that the chattering classes have been going on about for months. As a perennial swing state, U.S. Senate elections in Ohio always are the focus of national attention.
But this year is special because of the presence in the White House of one Donald J. Trump, who has blurred traditional party divisions over free trade and a host of other issues.
The pro-Trump candidate, Rep. Jim Renacci, R-Wadsworth, marched in a fogbound Perrysburg parade Saturday, passing out candy, shaking hands and chatting along the way. But instead of parroting Trump's anti-trade-agreement, anti-immigration message, he tells people that as a growing slice of the population prepares to retire, entitlements such as Medicare and Social Security need to change to be made sustainable.
"We have more seniors than ever," he told Tim Nowicki, an undecided voter who was manning a booth for the Wood County Committee on Aging. "All of our issues today have to do with demographics."
Renacci also repeated that it was what he sees as government overreach that got him to run for Congress in the first place.
"I only went to Washington because my car dealership was taken away," he said, referring to the 2008-2009 government intervention that many credit with saving GM and Chrysler, but Renacci and others say unfairly closed scores of dealerships. Renacci said he believes the auto giants should have gone through a normal bankruptcy and been allowed to sink or swim on their own — a classic Republican stance.
A day earlier and across Ohio's northern tier, Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown was in the Mahoning Valley with a very different message. A staunch supporter of what he calls the "auto rescue," he told a sweltering hall of volunteers that the tax cut that Renacci and his party support is again threatening American auto manufacturers.
"You know what happened with GM in Lordstown," he said, referring to a nearby assembly plant. "You know, the same day they laid off 1,500 workers on the second shift; the same day, GM announced they're going to open a plant in Mexico to make the Chevy Blazer.
"And you know what happened? Congress and President Trump signed a tax bill that gives a 50-percent-off coupon to companies that move overseas. If you're in Youngstown you pay a 21 percent corporate tax rate. If you move to Mexico or China, you pay a 10-and-a-half percent corporate tax rate."
You might say that when he makes such arguments, Brown sounds a bit like Trump. But Mahoning County Democratic Chairman David Betras said that on trade, Trump sounds like Brown.
Betras became a political oracle of sorts after Trump's surprise election. Before the 2016 election, Betras had tried to warn national Democrats that some of his own precinct committee men and women were bolting the party for Trump, but he was ignored by the campaign of Hillary Clinton. In the end, Democrats barely held Mahoning County. Once solidly Democratic, however, the steel-and-coal counties just to the south went overwhelmingly for Trump.
Betras said it was because Democrats didn't embrace a message Brown has been spreading for a long time.
"Listen, NAFTA around here is like a four-letter word," the chairman said, referring to a trade agreement that many labor unions blame for jobs moving overseas. "Sherrod's been railing against NAFTA for years. Donald Trump's been railing against NAFTA for years, and that's what the voters here want to hear."
While Brown worked to shore up his party's traditional blue-collar base, Renacci was working to keep his base motivated as well. He's been in Congress since 2011 and he's seeking at least another six years in the Senate, but Renacci relentlessly hits Brown as a "career politician" — an echo of then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich's 1994 Contract With America, which called for term limits.
"There are so many people who are frustrated with Washington right now," Renacci said. "They should be frustrated with people who have been there for 25 years. The guy I'm running against, Sherrod Brown, actually he's been in politics for 44 years. When most people see that and hear that in Ohio, they're not happy."
Renacci's embrace of mainline conservative politics works for Linda Bowyer, chairwoman of the Northwest Ohio Conservative Coalition, an independent political action committee.
"Jim's a good, conservative candidate," she said, as she staffed her group's booth along the Perrysburg Parade route. "I think he'll help president Trump get the rest of his agenda through."
Just as Trump has scrambled Ohio politics, he's scrambled the political map.
This was supposed to be a brutal year for Senate Democrats, with 24 members of their caucus up for re-election out of the 33 seats that are on the ballot. Worse (for them) is that 10 are in states that Trump won in 2016 — including Brown.
But Trump's national approval ratings have been stuck underwater and have plunged below 40 percent in recent weeks. Opposition to the polarizing president is intense and Senate seats not expected to be competitive suddenly are, even in deep red Texas.
That's forced national Republicans to divert resources to those contests, leading some to speculate that they've written off Renacci's bid as hopeless. But don't tell that to Renacci.
"We'll have the resources, we'll have the opportunity to win this race," he said. "It's grassroots. It's people getting to know who I am. Sherrod Brown hasn't been able to break 45, 46 percent (in the polls). You ought to write that story. Here's a guy, after all these years, who can't break 45 or 46 percent. If I was him I'd be concerned."
Don't tell Brown the thing is over, either.
"My opponent is very close to Trump," he said. "Trump has been in campaigning for him. And that means money and it means attention. And the gun lobby always drops millions against me and we expect that to come in October."