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Commentary: Brown And Renacci Waste No Time Starting Midterm Mud Fight

Associated Press
Ohio's Senate candidates, incumbent Democrat Sherrod Brown and Republican U.S. Rep. Jim Renacci.

Many general election contests start out with TV ads that make you feel warm and fuzzy. Bluebirds chirping in the trees. The candidate, rolling around the front yard, playing with the family dog, the grandkids or both.

But not Ohio's U.S. Senate race between Democratic incumbent Sherrod Brown and Republican challenger Jim Renacci.

This one's starting out as ugly as sin. A regular kick-boxing match. Two candidates coming out of the gate after the May 8 primary in an orgy of name-calling and insults. And this election is almost exactly five months away!

By the time November rolls around, televised mud-wrestling matches may be more likely than candidate debates. So what's going on here? Is this just politics in America in 2018?

Or is there method to this madness? And, trust me, it is pure madness.

Brown is the incumbent; that gives him a natural advantage. He can race around the state, holding "official" Senator-type events – such as the one he held Monday, May 29 beneath the crumbling Western Hills Viaduct – and get pretty much all the "free media" he wants.

Brown won that Senate seat 12 years ago by pulling off an upset over incumbent Republican Mike DeWine, and earned himself another six years in 2012 by holding off the onslaught of millions of dollars in independent expenditures spent on behalf of his Republican opponent, Josh Mandel.

Last week, Fallon Research issued a poll for the 1984 Society, a group of former Ohio Senate employees, that showed Brown with a 14 percentage point lead over Renacci – pretty much in line with other statewide polls in March.

So why is his campaign immediately turning out attack ads?

The first one, released last month, shows the Senator's face for about three seconds and his voice is only heard doing the legal disclaimer at the end. The rest of it is made up of unflattering photos of Renacci, a successful businessman first elected to the U.S. House in 2010, and some rather dubious claims about his status as a lobbyist.

"Jim Renacci's been a lobbyist even while in Congress, and what's he done?" the ad's narrator says. "He voted to make it easier for lobbyists to hold key government positions and harder to investigate conflicts of interest. And now he's running for the Senate? Jim Renacci. He's always looked out for himself."

PolitiFact, a Pulitzer Prize-winning fact-checking project operated by the Tampa Bay Times, looked at the Brown ad and came to this conclusion: Mostly false.

Yes, Renacci was still registered as a lobbyist during his first four months in Congress but there's no evidence that he did any lobbying. It didn't get the ultimate put-down, "Pants on Fire," on PolitiFact's "Truth-o-Meter," but it was pretty darned close.

Renacci fired back with some name-calling in his response ad, which he delivers himself.

"You're going to hear a lot from Sherrod 'Full-of-Bull' Brown because a lifelong politician who raises our taxes and broke his pledge on term limits will say anything to stay in Washington," Renacci says. "And, Sherrod, the next time you want to spread your bull around, look at the camera and do it yourself."

There is more than a little exaggeration in Renacci's claims. Yes, Brown has voted to raise taxes. He's also voted to lower taxes.

So why is the mud flying so soon and so fast?

Kyle Kondik, a political analyst with Ohio roots at the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, told WVXU that Ohio voters can expect much more of this.

"I would expect a nasty campaign – almost all the major races are,'' Kondik said. "It may be that Brown immediately going on the offensive is forcing Renacci to play defense immediately, preventing him from introducing himself in a positive way to the electorate."

Mack Mariani, assistant professor and chairman of the political science department at Xavier University, said he believes there may be some fear on the Democratic side that the massive "blue wave" many have predicted for this mid-term election may not be a big as expected. In fact, it may not materialize at all.

"When you look at the polling on a generic ballot, the numbers have changed in the last few months,'' Mariani said. "Candidates like Sherrod Brown can't depend on a big blue wave."

Brown's campaign may figure that it has to get out front and draw a negative picture of Renacci for voters – most of whom live outside his northeast Ohio congressional district and don't know him.

And if Brown stays on the attack, you can expect Renacci to follow suit.

If there are debates between the two in the fall and you decide you have to be there, take our advice: Bring a drop cloth to wear. You wouldn't want to get mud on you.

Howard Wilkinson joined the WVXU News Team after 30 years of covering local and state politics for The Cincinnati Enquirer. A native of Dayton, Ohio, Wilkinson has covered every Ohio governor’s race since 1974 as well as 12 presidential nominating conventions. His streak continued by covering both the 2012 Republican and Democratic conventions for 91.7 WVXU. Along with politics, Wilkinson also covered the 2001 Cincinnati race riots; the Lucasville Prison riot in 1993; the Air Canada plane crash at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport in 1983; and the 1997 Ohio River flooding. The Cincinnati Reds are his passion. "I've been listening to WVXU and public radio for many years, and I couldn't be more pleased at the opportunity to be part of it,” he says.