Why Republican insurgents are fighting to unseat GOP governors

Jim Renacci, a Donald J. Trump sidekick trying to capitalize on outside energy to oust the Republican governor of Ohio, has found himsel...


Jim Renacci, a Donald J. Trump sidekick trying to capitalize on outside energy to oust the Republican governor of Ohio, has found himself burnt out, bottom in the polls and lamenting his lack of endorsement from the former president.

He even gave up raising funds.

“Why waste time trying to raise money when you’re running against an incumbent?” Mr. Renacci said in an interview. “I prefer to spend time getting my message across. I just don’t have a finance team.

Mr. Renacci’s fate ahead of Tuesday’s Ohio primary election illustrates the challenges facing Republican candidates trying to seize on party divisions to unseat GOP governors. Some have been endorsed by Mr. Trump as part of his quest to dominate the Republican primaries, while others, like Mr. Renacci, have not been given the coveted green light but hope to cash in on anti-establishment fervor Trump supporters.

But in any case, these candidates failed to gain traction.

Gubernatorial candidates inspired and endorsed by Trump have put up stiff opposition to the May primaries in five states, but they face strong headwinds. In addition to Ohio, where Gov. Mike DeWine holds a nearly 20 percentage point lead over Mr. Renacci, Republican governors in Alabama, Georgia and Idaho are so far holding back candidates from the Trump wing. In Nebraska, a Trump-backed candidate is locked in a three-way contest for an open seat with Governor’s Choice and a Relative Moderate.

In all races, the governors of the traditional Republican establishment show their strength. Their resilience stems, in some cases, from voters’ desire for more restraint in their state executives than in their congressmen. But it is also clear evidence of the incumbent’s enduring power, even in a party at war with his establishment.

Incumbent governors have a plethora of benefits that don’t apply to members of Congress. They often control their state party’s infrastructure, they can direct local media, and they can campaign on specific political achievements.

And it’s hard to knock them down: Only three Republican governors have been denied renomination this century, in Kansas in 2018, Nevada in 2010 and Alaska in 2006. Scandals or political upheaval have been factors. major in every upheaval.

“As an incumbent governor, you have to work very hard to lose your party’s nomination,” said Phil Cox, former executive director of the Republican Governors Association which advises a number of governors. “Even if you’re an unpopular governor with a larger electorate, it should be relatively easy to build and maintain a solid base of support within your own party.”

The Republican Governors Association is supporting its incumbents, spending more than $3 million in Ohio to help Mr. DeWine, who has angered the conservative base with his aggressive Covid mitigation policies, and more than $5 million in dollars to Georgia to help Gov. Brian Kemp, who Mr. Trump blames for not helping him cancel the 2020 election.

In some states, Republican governors have moved to the right to fend off challengers.

Governor Greg Abbott of Texas did it with success in Marchand Governor Kay Ivey of Alabama followed his model ahead of its primary next month, falsely claiming in TV ads that the 2020 election was stolen and warning that unchecked immigration will force Americans to speak Spanish. Ms. Ivey holds a big lead over her opponents on the right, but Alabama law requires a majority of primary votes to avoid a runoff.

For Mr. Trump, who regularly brags about his approval rating among Republican voters and his approval record in the primaries, the prospect of losing a primaries – especially in Georgiawhere he has for over a year attacked Mr. Kemp — would be an embarrassing setback.

Polls show Mr Kemp well ahead of Mr Trump’s pick, former Senator David Perdue, who has bet his campaign on 2020 election grievances.

In Idaho, Lt. Governor Janice McGeachin, who was endorsed by Mr. Trump in his gubernatorial bid, is far behind Governor Brad Little. And in Nebraska, Mr. Trump endorsed Charles W. Herbster, a wealthy agribusiness executive who was charged this month by a state senator to grope her at a political event.

Mr. Trump’s advisers predict that he will simply dismiss any losses and instead highlight the races his candidates have won, as has generally been his practice. For example, he withdrew his approval of Rep. Mo Brooks in the Alabama Senate race when it became clear that Mr. Brooks’ campaign was unraveling.

“Remember, you know, my record is spotless,” Mr. Trump said in an interview with The New York Times on Thursday. “The real story should be on the endorsements – not David Perdue’s – and, by the way, no race is over.”

In Idaho, Ms. McGeachin came to the attention of the Republican base last year when, while Mr. Little was traveling out of state, she issued decrees banning mask mandates (which did not exist statewide) and banning businesses from requiring vaccinations, and also attempted to deploy the Idaho National Guard to the Mexican border. Mr Little reverse those moves on his return.

“She is brave and unafraid to stand up for the issues that matter most to the people of Idaho,” Mr. Trump said when he endorsed Ms. McGeachin in November.

There is virtually no public poll on the race, but CL Otter, a former Idaho governor known as Butch, said private polls showed that Mr. Little, that Mr. Otter has approved, held a two-to-one lead over Ms. McGeachin.

Ms. McGeachin has raised only $646,000, according to campaign finance data from the Idaho Office of the Secretary of State. Mr Little raised almost three times as much – $1.94 million. His assistants did not immediately respond to an interview request.

Mr. Herbster, like Mr. Renacci, is self-fund your campaign but struggled to translate Mr. Trump’s endorsement into a polling advantage over Jim Pillen, a University of Nebraska regent who is backed by Governor Pete Ricketts, and Brett Lindstrom, a state senator who consolidated the support of the moderate wing of the party and even some Democrats – including nearly 2,000 changed party affiliation before the May 10 primary. Mr. Herbster’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

Sam Fischer, a longtime Republican agent in the state who once worked for Mr. Herbster, said the western part of the state was “well Trumpier, but right now in Lincoln and Omaha, Herbster is behind” .

And in Ohio, Mr. Renacci, a businessman who has owned car dealerships and retirement homes, was outscored by Mr. DeWine nearly three times in TV ads, according to AdImpact, a tracking firm. medias. A third candidate, Joe Blystone, who owns a farming business, has spent nothing on TV but is running nearly on par with Mr. Renacci in public polls, well behind Mr. DeWine, who declined to be interviewed.

Mr. Renacci, a former small-town mayor who entered Congress in the Tea Party wave of 2010, was never a voracious fundraiser. He went through a series of campaign managers and financial aides in 2018, when Mr Trump persuaded him to drop his bid for governor and instead challenge Senator Sherrod Brown, a Democrat.

In this race, Mr. Renacci often used a app called Slydial, which bypasses direct phone calls by sending messages directly to people’s voicemail boxes, to send dozens of solicitations at once to potential donors, according to two people who worked for his campaign who insisted on anonymity for fear of impact on their career. It was an unusual tactic to reach out to potential contributors who often prefer a personal touch before opening their wallet.

Mr. Renacci lost to Mr. Brown by 6.8 percentage points after the democrat more than doubled his rival’s campaign spending.

At a rally for Mr. Trump last weekend in Ohio, Mr. Blystone’s supporters often quoted campaign ads by the candidate, praising his commitment to God, guns and his family.

“He’s not a politician, he’s a farmer, and as small as our town is, he’s been in bars just to visit people,” said Tiffany Dingus, 39, a participant.

Mr. Renacci said his main issue in the race was the presence of Mr. Blystone, whom he said Mr. Trump cited in conversation last month as his reason for not endorsing Mr. Renacci.

“This race would be over for Mike DeWine if there were only two people in the race,” Mr. Renacci said. “The president said he didn’t know the guy’s name, but he just said, ‘There’s a third guy in there taking votes away from you. “”

Nick Corasaniti, Maggie Haberman and Jazmine Ulloa contributed report.

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