Vice President Mike Pence sent a jolt into the crowded Republican race for Ohio governor this week when he used a visit to the state to wrap one hopeful in a warm political embrace.
Pence gave Rep. Jim Renacci a seat on Air Force Two’s Wednesday flight to Cleveland and then was effusive with his praise for the congressman in a speech at a local sheet metal factory.
Renacci is one four high-profile Republicans running to succeed term-limited Gov. John Kasich in 2018. He has built his campaign around the selling point that he is the candidate closest to President Donald Trump and the anti-establishment movement the president has cultivated.
“I’m grateful to be joined by another friend of mine,” Pence said at the event, an official administration visit to promote Trump’s policy agenda. “A strong partner of this administration, a leader who represents Ohio with such distinction in Washington, DC, Congressman Jim Renacci is here. Jim, would you mind standing up?”
Pence added: “You know, I was for Jim Renacci before it was cool. I really was. I got to know him before he was even elected to the Congress. Now he serves on the powerful Ways and Means Committee. He’s been a great champion of economic growth and jobs here in Ohio, and I am truly honored — truly honored — that you would be with us here today.”
Renacci’s team quickly moved to spin Pence’s kind words as, at the very least, a wink and a nod from the White House.
“Conservative businessman and Ohio gubernatorial candidate Jim Renacci arrived aboard Air Force Two this afternoon with Vice President Mike Pence to join the vice president as he delivered his remarks at Tendon Manufacturing Inc.” the Renacci campaign wrote in a Wednesday evening email that featured a video clip of Pence’s praise. Aside from a transcript, it avoided overt reference to Renacci’s job as a four-term congressman.
The email concluded: “After the vice president’s visit today, it is safe to say that there is only one candidate in the race for governor of Ohio that the administration views as truly with them.”
Is it safe to say that? Pence advisers, including Nick Ayers, who on Thursday was announced as the vice president’s chief of staff, did not initially respond to inquiries from BuzzFeed News. After this story published, a source close to the vice president's team called to say that Pence's remarks were not tantamount to an endorsement.
Another aide, Marty Obst, responded via email. "The vice president was in no way making an endorsement but rather a personal comment to an old friend at an official event," he wrote. "However this has no bearing on what the president or vice president may do with respect to the Ohio gubernatorial campaign."
Ohio Republican Party spokesman Blaine Kelly said officials at the state party, which is neutral in the primary, "are not reading into the vice president’s compliment of Congressman Renacci."
Republicans nationally are watching the White House closely to pick up any signs of favoritism, particularly in competitive primaries, as the 2018 midterms approach. And Pence has recently embraced a role as the GOP’s top political asset.
The GOP in Ohio is divided between Trump Republicans and Kasich Republicans, with a little overlap. Renacci’s effort to stake an exclusive claim to Trumpism and its followers has rankled Republicans partial to his three rivals: Attorney General Mike DeWine, Secretary of State Jon Husted, and Lt. Gov. Mary Taylor.
Many Trump Republicans remain furious that Kasich didn’t endorse or even vote for Trump after losing the GOP nomination to Trump last year. Trump won the state by 8 points, and appealing to his voters without alienating Kasich allies could prove a delicate primary dance.
Kasich and Renacci are not close — the congressman has even spoken critically of the governor.
Earlier this week, Renacci’s campaign trumpeted an endorsement from an organization that promotes itself as the oldest and largest tea party group on Facebook. In announcing the support, the group slammed Kasich: “Jim is a man of integrity and during the presidential primary, he wisely endorsed Donald Trump instead of that lowlife John Kasich!” Shortly after announcing the tea party group’s support in an email that linked to the Facebook post trashing Kasich, Renacci distanced himself from the “lowlife” comment.
“While Jim is honored to earn the endorsement of a rapidly growing number and wide range of grassroots conservative organizations, he accepts those endorsements as a testament to his own platform and record, and not based upon their various views on other candidates or officeholders,” Renacci spokesperson James Slepian said in response to a question from BuzzFeed News. “Jim has great respect for Gov. Kasich and does not share that view of him.”
The Renacci endorsement was posted by Mike Michaels, who on his Facebook page identifies himself as the national tea party director for Citizens for Trump. That organization — along with Bikers for Trump, another organization that supports the president — endorsed Renacci earlier this month. The influence these groups have over Ohio voters could be tiny, but their blessings have helped Renacci promote himself as the Trump-friendliest candidate.
DeWine and Taylor could be competing more for the Kasich Republicans. Kasich has signaled a preference for Taylor, his deputy for two terms, while some of his loyalists favor the attorney general. Husted is not overtly aligned with either faction. All three are trying to build coalitions between Kasich and Trump backers.
Husted spokesperson Josh Eck, responding to Renacci’s attempts to depict Pence’s comments as a sign the White House has a favorite, texted a clip from an interview last year in which Trump praised Husted to a Columbus TV station: “He’s excellent, by the way, I have to tell you.”
Eck wondered: “Support? Does this mean President Trump supports Jon Husted?”