Down by double digits in polls that have been wrong before, Jim Renacci ate up at the Akron Press Club luncheon Tuesday.
A late entry in the U.S. Senate race, it wasn’t long after winning the Republican primary that the millionaire congressman realized his opponent’s flush campaign war chest and strong name recognition. So, he said he’s missed meals on long days introducing himself to voters outside the 16th Congressional District, which dances around Akron from Brimfield to Wadsworth, where he used to be mayor, and up around Cleveland to Lake Erie.
In Stark County at a Perkins Family Restaurant on Sunday, Renacci said strangers put his face with five months of debunked attack ads painting him as a lobbyist and tax dodger.
“I had people come up to me and say, 'I saw you on TV, you’re Jim Renacci,'” he responded to an audience question Tuesday about why national donors are ignoring his campaign. “I’m thinking, ‘Yeah, sure. Sherrod Brown, keep running those ads, because people are starting to figure out who Jim Renacci is.’”
In Akron, the four-term congressman talked about his background to a group of about 80 people, mostly supporters, the media and political observers. He spoke of a “poor, Pennsylvania kid” coming to Ohio — “the land of opportunity” — with only $200 in his pocket in 1983 to start the first of 60 companies in everything from nursing home management to accounting to an amphitheater and an arena football team.
Renacci said local business people urged him to run for mayor, then Congress. He held off seeking an office in Washington, D.C. Then General Motors asked him to take over a Chevy dealership in Wadsworth with 53 employees. Uncle Sam shut it down in 2009 as GM entered government-backed bankruptcy.
“Anybody in this room who has ever had the federal government take something away from you,” he said, “it’s a difficult situation that you should never be comfortable with.”
Renacci grew up in a steel-making, coal-mining town outside Pittsburgh. “A strong, union area. In fact, there probably wasn’t a Republican in 150 miles,” he said, explaining that his politics didn’t shift to the right so much as the Democratic Party drifted left.
He called himself a friend of organized labor, offering a joke that instead of lying — which is the “easiest thing to do in politics” — he told a room full of union firefighters in Canton that, yes, he is and always has been a Steelers fan. The former volunteer firefighter and baseball coach sought their support.
On Tuesday, Renacci went after Brown, who spoke in Akron days after winning his uncontested May primary race. Renacci called the Cleveland progressive the fourth most liberal senator in America and a career politician whose 25 years in Congress happen to track a national decline in union membership. Off microphone, Renacci would not articulate his position on right-to-work legislation introduced in Ohio that would further weaken unions. He simply said it’s a state issue that should be decided with input from everyone, unions included.
Renacci called the divisive confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh a “national disgrace.” He echoed President Donald Trump’s charge of a due process meltdown and the opinion of a Fox News pundit, Geraldo Rivera. “He said: "Look, the president of the United States won. He is able to appoint who he believes, just like when Barack Obama won he appointed who he believed.”
In Obama’s signature Affordable Care Act, Renacci voiced support for covering pre-existing conditions, allowing children on family plans until 26 and eliminating lifetime caps on benefits. Then he called concern to the 185,000 Ohioans — 85 percent earning $50,000 or less a year — who he said have been fined in Ohio for not having coverage under the individual mandate. On his views of outgoing Gov. John Kasich, Renacci made clear he opposed Ohio’s Medicaid expansion, which allowed 725,000 more low-income Ohioans to get coverage.
The House Ways and Means and Budget committee member characterized the ACA as doomed because premiums are too high for people who just don’t qualify for subsidies. “It’s not affordable to the middle,” he said, articulating off-stage that transparency and competition could bring down premiums.
On an audience question about climate change, Renacci pivoted to the ballooning national debt. In defending the Republican-backed Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, which congressional researchers say will add $1.9 trillion to the federal deficit by 2028 and boost GDP by 0.7 percent, Renacci said that’s minor compared to the current $898 billion deficit and worth the cost if economic growth stays around 3 percent.