Key Ohio Senate primary with Trump-backed candidate headed for fierce finish

Written by on March 19, 2024

ABC News

Ohio’s GOP Senate primary is heading for a fierce finish Tuesday night as three Republicans bludgeon each other for the chance to run in one of the country’s marquee races this year.

Businessman Bernie Moreno and state Sen. Matt Dolan are duking it out in polling, with Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose lagging as voters cast their ballots. The victor will run in November against Sen. Sherrod Brown, a Democrat with a long-standing brand as a populist, working-class advocate facing stiff headwinds in the Republican-friendly state.

The lead-up to the primary has been characterized by allegations of party disloyalty, ideological insincerity, personal attacks, immense spending from self-funders Moreno and Dolan and Democratic meddling, along with a rally over the weekend by former President Donald Trump and his allies to boost Moreno.

Over a half-dozen political strategists who spoke to ABC News in the days leading up to the primary projected that Moreno entered voting Tuesday as the slight favorite, riding the wave of his alliance with Trump in a state where the former president remains popular with the grassroots. But with recent polls still pegging at least a fifth of the electorate as undecided, the race remained unsettled with the clock ticking down.

“I think it’s tighter than a lot of folks expected,” said one longtime Ohio GOP strategist. “I think Bernie still wins this thing by probably closer than people thought it would be. Dolan’s dumped on a shit-ton of money into this race, just personal money. And he’s got the momentum, but I think at the end of the day, in my opinion, I think Bernie will be able to win probably by 5ish points or so, I think. We’ll see.”

Moreno has been pressing his advantage with Trump’s followers, rallying with the former president and others such as Ohio GOP Sen. JD Vance, in Dayton last weekend. The event served a dual purpose of exciting the grassroots to vote before Tuesday and reminding the broader electorate of who won the support of the GOP kingmaker.

“The biggest challenge he’s had is establishing awareness that he is Trump’s preferred candidate. And so, this will get an enormous amount of attention and build some excitement … A lot of those [undecided voters] have no idea who Trump’s endorsed in this race, and they will know after this week,” David Niven, a political scientist at the University of Cincinnati, told ABC News on Friday.

Dolan, meanwhile, is leaning into his own strengths.

An erstwhile critic of Trump who lost the GOP Senate primary in 2022, Dolan ran this year as more agnostic on Trump, saying that he endorses the former president’s policies while remaining more circumspect on the man himself. He’s supplemented his establishment bona fides with endorsements from Gov. Mike DeWine and former Sen. Rob Portman, lawmakers more aligned with the traditional wing of the party.

Dolan has also tapped into his own immense wealth to blanket the airwaves with ads, emerging as easily the biggest spender in the primary.

“The spending really matters,” said former Rep. Steve Stivers, R-Ohio. “The endorsements matter because they’re main line, trusted voices, and when your vote goal is to get to 35%, 36%, which I think somebody will win this with less than 40, those kinds of trusted voices help you.”

Stagnating in third place has been LaRose, who got swamped by the spending of Moreno and Dolan and who tried to run as a strong Trump ally without the former president’s endorsement. Still, his campaign sounded a confident note Monday, with spokesperson Ben Kindel saying the campaign is “confident” LaRose would win as “a proven conservative” — a contrast, he said, to the other two candidates.

Remarks like those have punctuated much of the race.

Moreno has pounced on Dolan as anti-Trump, citing his criticism in 2022 and reticence to embrace Republicans’ presumptive presidential nominee this year. And Dolan has labeled Moreno as a “phony.” A super PAC supporting Moreno also hit out at LaRose in an ad last month as a “champion for trans equality.”

Some GOP strategists expressed caution at reading Tuesday’s results as part of a broader Republican proxy war, suggesting the gobs of money being spent are more determinative than any one candidate’s stance on Trump. But Moreno’s allies expressed confidence in their footing on that ideological battlefield, contrasting Dolan’s recent endorsements with Trump’s involvement.

“The biggest gift Matt Dolan’s team gave us was rolling out endorsements from Rob Portman and Mike DeWine over the last week because it allowed our campaign to reframe the race as being between the RINO establishment and the Trump/America First wing of the party,” said one Moreno adviser.

The race entered a more personal phase late last week after the Associated Press reported that an email account associated with Moreno’s business set up an account on a website seeking “men for 1-on-1 sex.” Moreno’s campaign has said that he didn’t have access to the email associated with the account, and a former intern said he set it up as a “prank.”

A pro-Dolan super PAC launched ads over the story after its publication, dubbing Moreno “damaged goods.” Trump and allies hit out at the story at the rally on Saturday, and Moreno’s wife released a statement laying the controversy squarely at Dolan’s feet.

Dolan’s campaign did not respond to requests for comment from ABC News.

The story ended up getting minimal play in local media, which Moreno allies attributed to wariness of the AP report.

“It’s not going to get the full message delivery that I think they thought they would be able to pull off,” one Ohio GOP strategist involved in the race said of Dolan allies’ seizing on the story.

On top of all the infighting, Democrats have spent over $3 million on efforts labeling Moreno as too conservative and close to Trump — a strategy viewed as backhandedly trying to boost him with Ohio’s conservative and pro-Trump primary electorate. Democratic sources said they were confident all three Republicans would be vulnerable on policy attacks but viewed Moreno as more vulnerable than Dolan and LaRose.

Whoever wins Tuesday will have the daunting yet possible task of unseating Brown.

The gravelly-voiced Democrat has for years centered his messaging around the “dignity of work,” establishing a pre-Trump era reputation as a populist with a muscular constituency services operation that has helped him transcend Ohio’s rightward drift — so far.

Stivers, who estimated Republicans would have a “tiny, tiny advantage” in November, dubbed Brown as “probably the best retail politician I’ve ever met,” recounting a story of running into him in a crowded elevator at an event.

“Sherrod Brown gets in right as the before the elevator door closes, and in the time between the bottom floor and the eighth floor where the event was, Sherrod Brown had a brief yet meaningful exchange with every individual person on that elevator. I mean, he’s a good retail politician, and he works hard,” Stivers said.

Virtually every Republican who spoke to ABC News expressed confidence that the ultimate nominee would be able to lick his wounds in time to face Brown, given that Ohio’s primary is in March, while other states offer shorter runways with primaries as late as August.

But observers predicted that recent weeks would not be the last characterized by such political brutality, given declining power of state powerbrokers in the Trump era and just the overall viciousness of modern politics.

“There’s no infrastructure, there’s no trusted voice who could guide the party away from these fights,” Niven said. “It’s a great indicator of the massive change in the nature of the party. They can’t avoid fighting with themselves anymore.”

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