Home News 3 Degrees of Trumpiness: Ohio’s Republican Senate Candidates Clash

3 Degrees of Trumpiness: Ohio’s Republican Senate Candidates Clash

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3 Degrees of Trumpiness: Ohio’s Republican Senate Candidates Clash

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Three Republicans seeking to take on Senator Sherrod Brown, Democrat of Ohio, in the fall took shots at one another during a debate on Wednesday night as they tried to present themselves as the most conservative candidate in a tightly contested primary.

It is a rare Senate race where an endorsement from former President Donald J. Trump has not cleared the Republican field.

Mr. Trump’s preferred candidate, Bernie Moreno, a former car dealer from Cleveland, has repeatedly cast himself as an outsider while playing up his endorsements, including his backing from Ohio’s other senator, J.D. Vance. Frank LaRose, the Ohio secretary of state, has presented himself as a “battle-tested” candidate who has already won a statewide race. And Matt Dolan, a wealthy state senator, has occupied a more moderate lane to promote his support for “Trump policies” without explicitly endorsing Mr. Trump in the primary.

The primary election, on March 19, will set up an expensive and closely watched November clash with Mr. Brown. Republicans see the race as a top pickup opportunity in the narrowly divided chamber.

The Republican primary candidates sparred for the third and final time at the debate, which was held in Oxford and hosted by Miami University and WLWT News 5. Here are five takeaways from the event and the broader race:

Republican primaries these days tend to revolve around which candidate praises Mr. Trump the most, and the candidates in Ohio appear well aware that he won their increasingly red state by eight percentage points in both 2016 and 2020.

Mr. Moreno highlighted his Trump endorsement moments into Wednesday’s debate, as he has during previous forums, defended Mr. Trump’s recent comments on NATO and later assured viewers that the former president was “a good man.”

His competitors tried their own approaches.

Mr. LaRose, who predicted incorrectly last year that Mr. Trump would stay out of the primary, pointed to the former president’s support for him during his 2022 race for secretary of state. He said on Wednesday that while “some people may find his personality abrasive,” Mr. Trump was “the kind of bold, courageous leader that we need.”

Even Mr. Dolan, who declined to back Mr. Trump in the primary, said repeatedly that he had “enacted Trump policies” in the Ohio Legislature, pointing to issues like school choice and tax cuts. On Wednesday, after Nikki Haley dropped out of the presidential race and left Mr. Trump all but certain to win the nomination, Mr. Dolan said he would “support” the former president.

But Mr. Dolan had some caveats, saying: “His personality? It’s not me. His political style? It’s not me. But his policies that make your life better, make America stronger, make Ohio stronger — that is me.”

All of the candidates on Wednesday night dug into their rivals’ pasts and recent remarks, seeking to prove their conservative bona fides.

Each contender suggested that voters should question the other candidates’ motives. They repeatedly squabbled over one another’s records on gun control, immigration policy, abortion and support for Mr. Trump.

“Who do you trust?” Mr. LaRose said bluntly in his opening remarks. “You’re going to hear a lot of talking points tonight from both of my opponents. They’re both desperate to convince you that they’re conservatives.”

Moments later, Mr. Moreno played up his Trump endorsement in accusing his rivals of being part of the “Nikki Haley, Liz Cheney, Mitt Romney wing of the party,” a jab at the traditional conservatism that Mr. Trump has trampled over.

And Mr. Dolan accused his opponents of “reinventing themselves for their political interests,” a comment he has made repeatedly, often to note that they did not immediately support Mr. Trump’s first run for office in 2016.

Last fall, more than 56 percent of Ohioans voted to enshrine abortion rights in the state’s Constitution. Republicans have struggled to articulate a winning position on the issue, one that Senator Brown may focus on given that all three of his prospective Republican opponents have expressed some support for a federal abortion ban.

The Republican candidates characterized Mr. Brown as holding an “extreme” position on the issue (though he has said he opposed “late-term abortion”) and articulated their support for policies like adoption services and contraception access. None explicitly mentioned in vitro fertilization, an issue on which Republicans have found themselves on the defensive after a recent Alabama court ruling that frozen embryos should be considered human beings.

Mr. Moreno on Wednesday repeated that he would support efforts at the federal level to “get a 15-week standard, where after 15 weeks, there are some common-sense restrictions.”

Mr. Dolan and Mr. LaRose avoided directly addressing a federal ban at the debate. But in January, they both indicated they would favor a federal ban to prevent “late-term” abortions, language used by abortion opponents to describe rare abortions past 21 weeks of pregnancy.

Mr. Dolan, by contrast, said on Wednesday that he supported exceptions for the “life of the mother, rape and incest” and suggested that his position was better for taking on Mr. Brown.

“I more accurately reflect where Ohioans sit right now,” Mr. Dolan said.

Mr. LaRose, meanwhile, pointed to an endorsement from the Ohio Right to Life PAC, which backed both him and Mr. Moreno, but he did not say on Wednesday whether he would support exceptions to abortion restrictions.

Immigration, including the influx of migrants at the southern border, has become a top concern among voters nationwide — and the issue has risen to the top of Ohio politics as well.

The candidates sparred across several debates over who was toughest on immigration, even though their platforms are fairly similar.

They all cast border control as a pressing concern, calling for heightened immigration enforcement and saying they would support finishing the border wall Mr. Trump promised and failed to complete. None expressed support for the bipartisan border deal in Congress that collapsed after Mr. Trump intervened.

That did not stop them from taking shots at one another. While Mr. LaRose and Mr. Moreno have both said they support deporting all undocumented immigrants, they exchanged attacks at a debate last month, highlighting past remarks that they said showed the other man was soft on that proposal.

Mr. Dolan has argued that the border first needs to be “sealed,” halting immigration. He has said the government could then determine how to handle undocumented immigrants who are already in the country, noting that Ohio businesses “need workers.”

During the January debate, Mr. Dolan also cast a call from Mr. Moreno to “wipe out the drug cartels” as an “irresponsible statement,” shortly after Mr. Moreno similarly said that Mr. LaRose had used “irresponsible rhetoric” in supporting U.S. drone strikes in Mexico.

All three Republicans have sought to connect the popular Mr. Brown to President Biden, the unpopular incumbent.

This race is the first time Mr. Brown is running in a presidential year since the state flipped to Republicans at the top of the ticket. The last time he ran alongside a Democratic president was in 2012, when President Barack Obama won the state by three points.

But Mr. Biden’s approval ratings in Ohio are dismal, and the eventual Republican Senate nominee is expected to seize on that reality.

All three candidates criticized “Biden and Brown” or “Brown and Biden” in tandem, whether in discussing the border crisis, claiming they were against American energy or criticizing their backing of the Inflation Reduction Act.

But for now, much of their focus is on attacking one another, including on subjects where little daylight exists among them.

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