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New campaign finance reports suggest Republican Gov. Mike DeWine well positioned despite GOP opposition

The Plain Dealer  Cleveland logo The Plain Dealer Cleveland 8/2/2021 Andrew J. Tobias, cleveland.com

COLUMBUS, Ohio – Unless the dynamics of the race change dramatically, new campaign numbers on Friday suggest that Gov. Mike DeWine, despite passionate opposition from a segment within his own party, is on a comfortable path to secure the Republican nomination next year and given the state’s larger political trends, perhaps even re-election.

DeWine reported raising more than $3 million in the most recent period — the most on record for the most recent reporting period, which covers the first half of 2021 — contributing to the $6.5 million in his campaign bank account. While that’s a major part of this story, it’s not surprising that DeWine would show strong fundraising numbers. He has a deep network of donors, the benefits of incumbency plus a 40-plus-year political career. He’s also independently wealthy, thanks to family business interests, so would be able and willing to self-fund his campaign if needed.

“The significant grassroots backing that the campaign has received is proof that Ohioans support Governor DeWine’s leadership,” Campaign Manager Brenton Temple said in a statement. “Our campaign is in a strong position heading into next November. We appreciate the groundswell of support from all over Ohio.”

But more revealing from Friday’s numbers is the weak showing from Jim Renacci, a Republican former congressman from Wadsworth who is DeWine’s most prominent challenger. Renacci reported raising just less than $22,000, nowhere near the seven-figure numbers that viable candidates, including the race’s underdog Democratic candidates, would be expected to raise.

While Renacci just entered the race in June and has only been raising money for a few weeks, he’s a former congressman who’s previously run statewide, and he’s spent nearly two years laying the groundwork to run statewide again via a political nonprofit he formed. All those factors should have set the stage for stronger fundraising. The number will raise questions about his viability as a candidate. For comparison, Joe Blystone, a cattle rancher from Central Ohio who’s developed a niche, social media-driven following, reported raising $258,800.

Renacci, an entrepreneur with diverse business interests, reported loaning his campaign $1 million, giving him just more than $1 million in the bank. But Renacci also has a track record of not spending his own money after loaning it to his campaign – his losing U.S. Senate Campaign in 2018 is a prime example – and unless he’s willing to spend something like $5 million of his own money or more, he will struggle to compete with DeWine unless he manages to attract more outside donors.

For comparison, the two main Democratic governor candidates during the same time period – Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley and Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley – said they raised $1.64 million and $1.07 million, respectively. Each candidate reported having more than $1.3 million in cash on hand, with a slight edge to Whaley. Cranley’s numbers don’t include $15,000 he recently raised through his federal leadership PAC – an unusual thing for a state candidate to have – which he’s partially spent on paying Jared Kamrass, his top campaign aide.

In an interview, Renacci said his low fundraising reflects the fact that his campaign is still getting off the ground. He said he’d planned on announcing in July, which would have given him more time to organize his campaign before having to report campaign finance numbers, but he jumped in the race in June because he felt “the timing was right.”

Renacci also said unlike the Senate race in 2018, he’s willing to spend his own money on his race if he needs to. He declined to share an amount he’d be comfortable spending, or share a fundraising goal, saying that’s something his campaign will develop once it hires a fundraising team. Renacci has said he didn’t spend $4 million he loaned his campaign 2018 because he felt he’d been recruited into the Senate race with a promise of national support that never showed up.

“Gov. DeWine has given us so much fodder to fuel the fire, that we jumped in earlier than we expected to,” Renacci said. “We’re going to do all that analysis, make some decisions and put a fundraising team in place. And as I’ve said in the past, I’ve committed to put in whatever’s necessary to win.”

From a purely political standpoint, DeWine could be vulnerable to a viable Republican challenger. DeWine has alienated elements of his own party through his handling of the coronavirus crisis, which incidentally has drawn him praise from President Joe Biden, and could be damaged further by his administration’s ties to House Bill 6, the nuclear bailout bill that’s at the center of a federal corruption investigation. His mild-mannered, reality-based approach to politics – he was among the first Republicans to acknowledge that Biden won the November election, and said Donald Trump “poured gas on the fire” ahead of the deadly Jan. 6 riot by Trump supporters at the U.S. Capitol – places him outside the current center of gravity, largely created by Trump, of the GOP’s activist base.

But unless Renacci dramatically improves his fundraising, his Friday numbers suggest that anti-DeWine Republicans will have to hope someone else enters the race.

Some have speculated that a Republican candidate could drop out of a crowded U.S. Senate primary and run for governor instead, although there’s no specific indication that will happen. The Ohio Republican Party, whose leadership backs DeWine, likely would discourage it. DeWine’s most recent campaign haul includes a $500,000 transfer from the state GOP.

But a more plausible entrant into the governor’s race could be U.S. Rep. Warren Davidson, an arch-conservative Republican from Miami County who has said he’s considering running for governor.

In a Friday interview, Davidson said he’s received encouragement to run, including from state legislators and interest groups. He said that he’s considering it “very strongly,” and is looking to make a decision about the race in September. Issues people have raised to him include DeWine’s pandemic response, the House Bill 6 scandal and the governor’s proposal to deal with gun violence, which has been opposed by gun-rights groups and blocked by Republican state legislators.

“Without naming names, there’s a range of people who have expressed that sentiment, and because it’s people I respect, I’ve said I’ll take a look at it. And we’ve looked at it close enough that if I do get in the race, it would make a difference,” he said.

While he’s never run statewide before, Davidson has attracted some interest from national donors interested in funding a DeWine challenger who were turned off by Renacci’s 2018 Senate campaign. Some people around him have discussed whether his friend, U.S. Rep. Jim Jordan, a close ally of Trump who has a national fundraising network and deep connections in Trump World, could help line up support for Davidson and maybe pressure Renacci to leave the race. Jordan himself likely had a good chance of defeating DeWine if he’d decided to get in the race, but he decided not to earlier this year, preferring to focus on his congressional career.

“If Mr. Davidson ran for governor, I think Mr. Jordan would definitely support him,” Kevin Eichinger, a Jordan campaign spokesman, said on Friday. “He is one of his best friends in Congress.”

But there’s a risk for Davidson if he got in the race. With Renacci already in, along Blystone, another candidate could further split the anti-DeWine vote.

But Davidson said a crowded field wouldn’t necessarily discourage him from entering.

“So far, I haven’t seen anyone else have traction in the race, so that hasn’t been a substantial factor,” he said.

Despite his issues with the GOP’s base, DeWine remains a formidable, well-known candidate with deep financial backing. He has a conservative, anti-abortion record to run on, and a story to tell about his leadership during the coronavirus pandemic, including his work with the Trump administration, that could appeal to more mainstream Republican voters. And he likely will have an overwhelming financial advantage against any opponent, none of whom at this point are extremely well known.

So even if Davidson gets in with prominent backing and even if he clears the field — which seems unlikely, since Renacci has spent years planning to run for governor — he still would face an uphill battle against DeWine. The same goes for Renacci, if he’s able to fund a viable campaign.

In either scenario, that Republican primary election could end up being competitive. But much would have to change in order to get there.

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