Major battle over new tax law expected in Ohio Senate race

Major battle over new tax law expected in Ohio Senate race
© Greg Nash

The new tax law could play a major role in the Ohio Senate race, with the contests potentially shaping up to be a showdown between two congressional tax-writers.

Incumbent Sen. Sherrod BrownSherrod Campbell BrownOvernight Defense: Guardsman to testify Lafayette Square clearing was 'unprovoked escalation' | Dems push for controversial Pentagon nominee to withdraw | Watchdog says Pentagon not considering climate change risks to contractors Democrats urge controversial Pentagon policy nominee to withdraw Chamber of Commerce, banking industry groups call on Senate to pass corporate diversity bill MORE (D), who for years has fashioned himself as a populist fighter for the working class, is a member of the Senate Finance Committee and vocally opposed the GOP tax measure signed into law by President TrumpDonald John TrumpMark Kelly clinches Democratic Senate nod in Arizona Trump camp considering White House South Lawn for convention speech: reports Longtime Rep. Lacy Clay defeated in Missouri Democratic primary MORE last month.


Rep. Jim RenacciJames (Jim) B. RenacciOhio is suddenly a 2020 battleground Democrats fear Ohio slipping further away in 2020 Medicare for All won't deliver what Democrats promise MORE (R), who switched from the Ohio governor’s race to the Senate race last week and may face a difficult primary, is a member of the House Ways and Means Committee who was involved in developing and championing the legislation.

Both candidates believe the new tax law will be to their advantage in the race.

“I think that my state overwhelmingly understands this tax bill is all about helping the richest 1 percent at the expense of everybody else,” Brown told reporters last week.

Renacci argued that the new law helps the economy and working families.

“Middle-class Americans are starting to see the benefit of it,” he said. “I think what Sherrod Brown did is vote against middle-class Americans.”

The Ohio race is one of a number that could be important for Democrats as they seek to regain the majority in the Senate. For Republicans, it’s an opportunity to widen their advantage, as they currently hold a slim 51-49 seat majority in the upper chamber.

The 2018 map is challenging for Democrats, with Brown, 65, being one of 10 Democratic senators up for reelection in states that Trump carried in 2016. But Democrats are also feeling optimistic given Trump’s low approval ratings as well as recent victories in New Jersey, Virginia and Alabama.

The nonpartisan Cook Political Report rates the Ohio race as leaning Democratic.

The race was recently shaken up when GOP front-runner Josh Mandel, Ohio’s state treasurer, ended his campaign, citing his wife’s health issues. Renacci, 59, subsequently entered the contest after getting support from Trump.

Renacci will be in a competitive primary race with 64-year-old businessman Mike Gibbons, and more candidates could get in ahead of the filing deadline next month. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellTrump's election delay red herring On The Money: Unemployment debate sparks GOP divisions | Pandemic reveals flaws of unemployment insurance programs | Survey finds nearly one-third of rehired workers laid off again OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Trump signs major conservation bill into law | Senate votes to confirm Energy's No. 2 official | Trump Jr. expresses opposition to Pebble Mine project MORE (R-Ky.), who has not endorsed in the primary, spoke with J.D. Vance about the race, though the “Hillbilly Elegy” author has not announced yet if he’s going to enter the contest.

Some observers of the race said it’s unclear how the primary will shake out, while others gave Renacci the edge. Still, the tax law is sure to be an issue in the general election contest against Brown, with Gibbons saying that he too backs the tax law and thinks it will boost the economy. 

“He is supportive of the bill and believes that it is a good issue,” Gibbons spokesman Chris Schrimpf said.

While it’s unclear if Renacci will ultimately be the Senate GOP nominee, his addition to the contest is notable because both he and Brown are members of Congress’s tax-writing panels and have very divergent views on the new law.

As a Republican on the Ways and Means Committee, Renacci was involved in crafting the bill and selling it to the public. Throughout last year, he frequently promoted the GOP’s tax-cut efforts on cable television shows.

Meanwhile, Brown gained attention during the tax debate over an exchange he had with Finance Committee Chairman Orrin HatchOrrin Grant HatchSenate GOP divided over whether they'd fill Supreme Court vacancy  Five takeaways as panel grills tech CEOs Trump awards medal of freedom to former congressman, Olympian Jim Ryun MORE (R-Utah) that went viral. During the exchange, Brown pressed Hatch to acknowledge “this tax cut really is not for the middle class, it’s for the rich,” leading Hatch to erupt.

Republicans and Democrats in Ohio and states across the country are pushing to win over voters with their arguments on the new tax law, which cut taxes across the board but that polls have shown is widely viewed as primarily benefitting wealthy Americans.

“This is certainly going to be a central issue in this race,” said Renacci campaign spokesman James Slepian.

Renacci and other Republicans have been touting the companies that have announced bonuses and wage increases following the tax law’s enactment, such as Cincinnati-based Fifth Third Bank.

Bob Salera, a spokesman at the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which hasn’t taken a position in the Ohio GOP primary, said that “as the new withholding rates take effect, giving a boost to workers’ take-home pay, it will be clear that Brown and his Democrat colleagues fought against a bill that is directly benefiting middle-class Ohio families.”

A recent SurveyMonkey poll conducted for The New York Times found that support for the tax plan has increased since December, a positive sign for Republicans. Still, the poll found that more people disapprove of the law than approve of it.

Democrats have noted that polls show a lack of widespread support for the new law and argue that voters don’t like that the measure would largely benefit high earners and corporations.

“Americans hate this tax scam because they’re paying more so that the wealthy, well-connected and corporations that ship jobs to places like China can get another handout,” said Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) spokesman David Bergstein.

“The more voters learn about the least popular legislation in decades, the worse it gets for Republican Senate candidates, including those slugging it out in the brutal Ohio GOP primary.”

After the Senate passed the bill last month, the DSCC ran digital ads in Ohio and other states with key races highlighting the fact that some middle-class families will see their taxes go up because of the measure.

The tax bill isn’t the only issue in the race, but could be part of the broader messages that the campaigns are trying to convey.

Renacci is playing up his background as a businessman, while Brown has posited himself as a populist champion.

Dave Heller, a Democratic strategist who has done work in Ohio, said that there are other issues, such as health care, that may be better for Brown to focus on.

“I don’t think [taxes are] a loser for him, but I think there are bigger winners out there,” he said.

Renacci is also starting the race with a fundraising disadvantage. While he raised money for his gubernatorial bid, he can’t transfer those funds over to his Senate bid. Brown, meanwhile, closed the year with $9.8 million in the bank, his campaign said, twice the amount he had on hand at the same point in the 2012 cycle.