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GOP Recruitment Troubles Could Affect Senate Races


Democrats are having no problem recruiting candidates to run for office. Anger at President Trump is high among the base, and Trump has historically low approval ratings for a first-year president. On the flip side, Republicans are struggling to recruit top candidates to take on incumbent Democrats. And this is happening even in states that Trump carried. Here's NPR's Don Gonyea.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: Ohio is one of those Trump states with a big Senate race this year. The president captured it easily in 2016. And this week, he was back in Cincinnati, promoting the new tax cuts.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Oh, I love the state of Ohio.


TRUMP: What great memories.

GONYEA: The president also gave a shout-out to Congressman Jim Renacci, who's running for Senate.


TRUMP: Jim, get in there, and fight. Get in there, and fight. We need you. We need you.

GONYEA: Renacci is not yet the nominee. The primary's in May. He is the frontrunner. And if he gets the nomination, it's something no one would have predicted even a month ago. Until January, Renacci wasn't even running for Senate. He was a candidate for governor, running early TV spots for that office.


JIM RENACCI: Hold it. We deserve a change in Ohio. I'm Jim Renacci. I'm a businessman, not a crooked politician. Join my...

GONYEA: But the once-solid GOP plan for the Ohio Senate race hit snag after snag. Congressman Pat Tiberi was expected to get in. He decided not to run. State Treasurer Josh Mandel, once the front-runner, dropped out suddenly a month ago citing health issues his wife is dealing with. J.D. Vance, the author of the best-seller "Hillbilly Elegy," considered getting in. He, too, decided no. That's when Renacci abruptly switched his campaign from governor to the Senate. He talked about it on Fox News.


RENACCI: I was running the governor's race, and I said the only way that I would jump is if I did get a call from the White House. And the White House did call on Tuesday.

GONYEA: GOP recruiting troubles were also the story in other states Trump carried just over a year ago. Some of it is due to Trump. Some is because of predictions of a big Democratic year. Take the Wisconsin GOP. It has had no success in finding a major challenger to take on Senator Tammy Baldwin, and it's the same in Minnesota. Big name Republicans said no even though it's a brand new incumbent - Senator Tina Smith - who replaced Al Franken. Republicans will probably settle for lesser-known hopefuls in North Dakota and Montana as well. In Pennsylvania, Republican Congressman Lou Barletta is running to take on three-term Democratic Senator Bob Casey. Terry Madonna of Franklin & Marshall College describes Barletta this way.

TERRY MADONNA: He was Trump before Trump was Trump on the whole issue of immigration.

GONYEA: Barletta is expected to get the nomination, and Madonna says that will make the race a referendum on Trump for better or worse.

Let's go back to Ohio now where Justin Barasky is Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown's campaign manager. He says it's not about running a race against Trump. In fact, he points out that Senator Brown agrees with Trump on some key issues.

JUSTIN BARASKY: Right after Donald Trump got into office, Sherrod reached out to him and told him that he wanted to work with him on fighting some of these bad trade deals that have cost Ohio jobs.

GONYEA: And don't tell them about how Democratic anger with Trump will make this year easy for Democratic incumbents.

BARASKY: So we're certainly always paying attention to what President Trump is doing, but our campaign doesn't live and die by where his approval rating is.

GONYEA: Republicans meanwhile insist they like the candidates they've got and, with a healthy economy and new tax cuts, say they've got time to get that message out and make some new faces more familiar. Don Gonyea, NPR News, Columbus.

(SOUNDBITE OF J DILLA'S "JAY DEE 49") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.

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