Former U.S. Rep. Jim Renacci selected a political newcomer, Christian film producer Joe Knopp, as his running mate in a bid to unseat GOP Gov. Mike DeWine.
Knopp, 47, of Springboro, is best known for his Christian films "UnPlanned," which chronicled a Planned Parenthood clinic director who later opposed abortion, and "I Can Only Imagine" featuring Dennis Quaid, about an abused man played who found faith. Knopp has no political or fundraising experience.
"I'm here to help clean up Columbus," Knopp said. "The two leaders there have 66 years combined, I think, they have been in politics. I have been in politics for about 15 minutes now."
Knopp said he decided to dip his toe into politics after DeWine closed schools and businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic.
"The church I attend in Dayton, Ohio is two miles from down the road from the abortion clinic, and I wasn't able to attend my church during COVID," Knopp said. "However, the abortion clinic was open the entire time and that was his responsibility."
DeWine's health orders, which closed businesses and polling booths, never required religious institutions to close. Churches, mosques and synagogues were protected by the First Amendment. At certain points, congregants were required to wear masks.
Knopp said he attributed his church's closure to fear imposed by DeWine and his health department.
Running to the right of DeWine on abortion could be challenging. DeWine has staked his career on protecting children and infants, signing multiple abortion restrictions into law. He signed the so-called heartbeat bill, which bans abortions as early as eight weeks gestation. That law has been placed on hold by a federal court.
DeWine's campaign declined to comment on Knopp joining the ticket.
Who is Joe Knopp?
Knopp was born in Philadelphia, raised by parents who struggled with substance abuse. He was homeless and lived in an orphanage. At age 19, he moved to Ohio, serving in the Air Force at Wright Patterson Air Force Base. He attended Wright State University at night, earning a degree in finance.
His career in film producing sprung from that finance degree – a friend needed help securing financing for Christian films in Hollywood. "I was the only finance guy that he knew. He called me to help figure out how to get these movies made and get these stories told."
'DeWine operated this state in fear'
Renacci faces a challenging race against incumbent DeWine in 2022. DeWine and his running mate Jon Husted have the name recognition, political experience and money needed to win. Knopp said he has never raised money for a political campaign before.
But DeWine and Husted also have the baggage of fighting a COVID-19 pandemic over the past two years. DeWine closed polling locations, businesses and small businesses. He mandated masks and encouraged COVID-19 vaccines to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus.
"Gov. DeWine operated this state in fear. He made everybody fear going to church. He made everybody fear going to the grocery store," said Renacci, adding that he would have never appointed Dr. Amy Acton to lead the Ohio Department of Health.
Renacci is hoping to capitalize on that frustration, offer a more pro-Trump message and emphasize the DeWine administration's ties to Akron-based FirstEnergy, a company that admitted to bribing a top legislator and utility regulator.
It's not yet clear if Trump will endorse in the Ohio governor's race. Trump endorsed both DeWine and Renacci in their 2018 bids for governor and U.S. Senate, respectively. DeWine defeated Democrat Rich Cordray, and Renacci lost to Democratic incumbent Sherrod Brown.
"The president wants to see what's best for Ohio," said Renacci, adding that the former president wouldn't enforce until closer to the election. "I don't think he's going to endorse anyone but me, but that also doesn't mean he's not going to endorse anyone at all. He could just stay out of this race."
Another candidate in the race, Canal Winchester farmer Joe Blystone, could divide the anti-DeWine vote. Blystone is unlikely to win but has a loyal following of those who believe DeWine destroyed the state and the 2020 election was rigged.
"I do believe that the establishment does like when there are multiple candidates," said Renacci, touting his experience.. "Having eight years in Congress is not a bad thing. Actually, it's a very good thing because it gave me an opportunity to see how bad the swamp is and how we could fix it."
Jessie Balmert is a reporter for the USA TODAY Network Ohio Bureau, which serves the Akron Beacon Journal, Cincinnati Enquirer, Columbus Dispatch and 18 other affiliated news organizations across Ohio.
This article originally appeared on Cincinnati Enquirer: Ohio governor race: Jim Renacci's running mate: film producer Joe Knopp