When the GOP’s top pick for Ohio’s Senate seat abruptly pulled out of the race this month it upended the Republican primary and set the stage for a wide-open battle over Trumpism.
After state Treasurer Josh Mandel bagged his bid, President Trump’s political team recruited Rep. Jim Renacci into the race, where he faces Mike Gibbons, a businessman who has embraced the president.
Analysts are now waiting for Gov. John Kasich, a frequent Trump opponent, to field his own candidate in the race as an anti-Trump force. The deadline for candidates in Feb. 7.
The winner will face off against Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown, whose decidedly liberal voting record makes him a target in a state where Republicans have been ascendant — including an easy win for Mr. Trump in 2016.
Both Mr. Gibbons and Mr. Renacci are embracing Mr. Trump and arguing they will do more than any one else to advance the Trump agenda.
“Who can play the role of the angry business owner better — Jim Renacci or Mike Gibbons? That is what this race will come down to,” said Mark Weaver, an Ohio-based GOP strategist who is not tied to either candidate. “Renacci has a little bit of time to frame himself as the angry businessman who went to Washington to stir things up and retain his street cred as an outsider.”
“He needs that quickly because if Gibbons is smart he will immediately go up and frame Renacci as ‘Congressman Renacci,’” Mr. Weaver said, alluding to voter dismay with Washington.
Doug Deeken, chairman of the Wayne County Republican Party of Ohio, said members of the GOP are still adjusting to this month’s moves.
“Before Congressman Renacci moved from the governor’s race to the Senate race, a lot of people who were supporting Renacci for governor were also supporting Gibbons for Senate, which is weird, but this is politics,” Mr. Deeken said. “People are still trying to figure out what the heck is going on now. We have had a couple of days to digest this and people are like’ What happened?’ The dust is still settling.”
Mr. Deeken said there also is buzz inside GOP circles the party establishment led by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is trying to entice J.D. Vance, a Trump critic and author of “Hillbilly Elegy,” to run.
“If he gets in it will be because people like Mitch McConnell and John Kasich,” Mr. Deeken said. “Those guys would probably push a guy like J.D. Vance to get in because they look at Mike Gibbons and Jim Renacci and say they are too conservative.”
Mr. Mandel, who dropped out citing his wife’s health issues, had been a sort of consensus candidate — save for Mr. Kasich, who refused to endorse him after Mr. Mandel passed over his governor and endorsed Mr. Trump in the 2016 GOP presidential race.
The Franklin County GOP, which is full of Kasich allies, including chairman Doug Preisse, endorsed Mr. Gibbons last month.
“Some Kasich supporters have backed Gibbons but mostly because they didn’t favor Josh Mandel,” said John C. Green, professor at the University of Akron. “The primary may turn more on who has the best chance to beat Sherrod Brown than divisions between Trump and Kasich.”
Mr. Gibbons has sent his rivals a message by vowing to invest as much as $5 million of his own money into his campaign.
He’s running on a message similar to Mr. Trump’s arguing he’s a “businessman, not a politician” and that “career politicians have failed us.”
“Mike Gibbons is the only conservative outsider in the race,” said Chris Schrimpf, a Gibbons spokesman who worked for Mr. Kasich’s presidential bid. “Jim Renacci is a Washington insider and career politician who is so desperate to keep office that he can’t even decide what office to run for.”
Mr. Renacci has served four terms in Congress, and has been a staunch defender of Mr. Trump — including during the recent flap over the president’s sharp comments about immigration from Haiti, El Salvador and African countries.
Mr. Deekan said Mr. Renacci and Mr. Gibbons have similar backgrounds and politics, but that Mr. Renacci has cultivated a stronger statewide network and is the front-runner.
“The difference is Congressman Renacci has held office, while Mike Gibbons has not run for office before, which is the age of Trump is forgivable,” Mr. Deekan said. “They are not a mile apart on their political positions. Where they differ is in who I think is most like to beat Sherrod Brown in the fall. This is why I think the president wanted Jim Renacci in the race.”