Home News Republican Senate Slugfest in Ohio Fuels Jitters About Trump’s Candidate

Republican Senate Slugfest in Ohio Fuels Jitters About Trump’s Candidate

Republican Senate Slugfest in Ohio Fuels Jitters About Trump’s Candidate


With just days to go before the election, the three-way Republican Senate primary in Ohio has turned into a food fight, fueling concerns about former President Donald J. Trump’s favored candidate, Bernie Moreno.

The contest on Tuesday to decide who will face Senator Sherrod Brown has been contentious for months, with Mr. Moreno, a wealthy former car dealer who has never held elected office, struggling to outrun his rivals, State Senator Matt Dolan and Secretary of State Frank LaRose. But in recent weeks, a handful of independent surveys have indicated that Mr. Dolan, a more traditional conservative with deep pockets of his own, is gaining traction.

On Monday, Mr. Dolan received the endorsement of Gov. Mike DeWine of Ohio — after gaining backing last week from another statewide Republican, former Senator Rob Portman. That same day, Mr. Trump’s campaign announced that the former president would appear alongside Mr. Moreno on Saturday in Dayton, widely interpreted as a sign that Mr. Moreno could benefit from an 11th-hour boost. (The former president had planned to attend a rally in Arizona but was redirected because of concerns about Mr. Dolan’s surge in internal polling, according to two people familiar with the planning.)

In the homestretch, Mr. Dolan and groups supporting him have outspent both Mr. Moreno and Mr. LaRose, blanketing the airwaves with attacks highlighting inconsistencies in Mr. Moreno’s record that could be of concern in a Republican primary, such as the more liberal views on immigration he espoused in the past. Simultaneously, Mr. Moreno and his backers have portrayed Mr. Dolan as not sufficiently supportive of Mr. Trump.

“This is between the steady-at-the-wheel, consistent conservatives over the last 20-plus years, versus the more upstart, populist, Donald Trump-inspired candidates,” said Ryan Stubenrauch, a Republican strategist in Ohio who has not endorsed any of the candidates.

He called Mr. DeWine and Mr. Portman “conservative, popular politicians who did a lot of good” in Ohio, adding, “That still counts for something, is what we’re seeing, and it’ll be interesting to see how much it counts for.”

Republicans have viewed this year as their best opportunity yet to defeat Mr. Brown, the lone Democrat who retains a statewide position in Ohio. After Mr. Trump overwhelmingly won the former battleground state in 2016 and 2020, Ohioans sent J.D. Vance, who won his own nasty primary with Mr. Trump’s backing, to the Senate in 2022. Adding to headwinds at home, Mr. Brown may be further challenged by a ticket topped by President Biden, who remains unpopular in Ohio.

Democrats have made no secret of their desire to compete against Mr. Moreno, who has already been the subject of a barrage of negative ads questioning his conservative bona fides and headlines calling attention to legal issues involving his businesses.

This week, a Democratic group began running an ad highlighting Mr. Moreno’s hard-line stances and his closeness to Mr. Trump, something Democrats view as easier to run against in a general election. Mr. DeWine, in a post on X, said the meddling indicated Democrats “know he’s the weakest candidate to beat Sherrod Brown this fall.”

Bitterness over the muddled Republican contest has made its way to Washington, where Republican leaders and strategists have privately, and pre-emptively, assigned blame. The Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell, who disagreed with Mr. Trump in 2022 over the selection of Republican primary candidates, said offhandedly that “it would be nice to have a baseball owner here” in the Senate, according to one person with direct knowledge of the comment. (The Dolan family is a majority owner of the Cleveland Guardians.)

At a meeting of Senate Republicans on Tuesday, Mr. McConnell went further, seeming to question Mr. Moreno’s endorsements from the former president and Mr. Vance.

“Let’s hope Trump and J.D. got this right,” Mr. McConnell said, according to two people familiar with the conversation, before adding that “Bernie’s not looking too hot.” The comments from Mr. McConnell drew a quick response from Mr. Vance, who was in the room, according to one person. A spokesman for Mr. McConnell declined to comment.

Mr. Moreno has attributed recent attacks and negative reports to his commitment to challenging the status quo, even among Republicans. On Friday, he posted a video on X of Donald Trump Jr., another prominent backer, telling him at a campaign stop that there were “a lot of people working hard against you.”

“I wear attacks like a badge of honor,” Mr. Moreno wrote. “It means I’m a threat to the establishment.”

Reagan McCarthy, a spokeswoman for Mr. Moreno, said Mr. Dolan was “trying to deceive voters and distract from his anti-Trump, left-wing record.”

“Ohio voters won’t be fooled by these desperate and vile attacks, and on Tuesday will nominate the only true conservative in this race: Bernie Moreno,” she said.

In addition to pitting factions of the state’s Republican Party — the old guard, versus Mr. Trump’s loyalists — against each other, the race has offered a test of Mr. Trump’s influence that has rarely been found in G.O.P. primaries this year.

In 2022, Mr. Trump endorsed several Senate candidates in battlegrounds like Pennsylvania and Georgia who won primaries with his support but lost competitive general elections, helping Democrats maintain control of the Senate. This time, Mr. Trump and the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the Senate G.O.P. campaign arm, aligned more closely, largely staving off bruising primaries.

But the N.R.S.C. declined to make an endorsement in Ohio. The three Republicans and groups supporting them have collectively spent more than $30 million since January 2023, according to AdImpact, a media tracking firm. In the last weeks of the campaign, Mr. Dolan and the groups supporting him outspent his rivals by several million on advertising.

Jim Renacci, a former Republican congressman who ran against Mr. Brown in 2018 and has remained neutral in the primary, said that Mr. Dolan appeared to be “moving in the right direction, and the other two candidates don’t have the resources, in my opinion, to slow him down.”

But Mr. Dolan’s support may have a ceiling: He declined to endorse Mr. Trump during the G.O.P. presidential primary, backing “Trump policies” rather than the former president personally, before saying he would “support” Mr. Trump once it was clear he would be the nominee. His reluctance could prove troublesome among a primary electorate that overwhelmingly backs Mr. Trump.

“What they see in me is somebody who actually gets things done, actually executes on things, has an agenda, knows the issues, and is not just simply running on the backs of other folks,” Mr. Dolan said in an interview, taking a shot at Mr. Moreno.

Mr. Brown’s campaign — which, in the first two months of this year, raised $5.7 million, more than his potential opponents’ sums combined — is counting on the continued resonance of his working-class message as Democrats eagerly watch the Republican infighting.

“The Republicans in this race have been more focused on fighting each other than fighting for Ohioans,” said Katie Smith, a spokeswoman for the Ohio Democratic Party. “No matter which untested rich guy makes it through this expensive slugfest, they’ll enter the general election damaged, with substantial baggage, and a steep hill to climb.”

Throughout the contest, Mr. Moreno has portrayed himself as the outsider candidate while leaning on prominent endorsements, appearing on the trail with Mr. Trump’s oldest son and Mr. Vance, as well as Gov. Kristi Noem of South Dakota and Vivek Ramaswamy, the former Republican presidential candidate.

Mr. LaRose, the least wealthy of the candidates, has used his background in the U.S. Army and his years of government service to present himself as a conservative fighter, particularly on issues like abortion. And Mr. Dolan has pitched himself as a consensus-minded Republican with less hard-line approaches on handling undocumented immigrants and abortion access.

Still, with many of their policy positions virtually indistinguishable, all three men — and the super PACs backing them — have gotten personal. Mr. LaRose and Mr. Moreno have banded together to attack Mr. Dolan as disloyal to Mr. Trump, while both Mr. Dolan and Mr. LaRose have accused Mr. Moreno of shifting his views on everything from gun control to Mr. Trump himself.

In interviews with nearly two dozen voters at events featuring all three candidates just over a week before the election, the majority said that they were undecided on whom to vote for on Tuesday.

Mr. LaRose, once seen as a front-runner as the only candidate who has won statewide races, has trailed his opponents after backing two unsuccessful attempts to curtail abortion access in Ohio and failing to get Mr. Trump’s endorsement. But at a Republican pancake breakfast last Saturday in Cincinnati where all three candidates spoke, Mr. LaRose urged attendees to consider whom they “trust” the most.

“That word ‘trust’ is something that transcends big multimillion-dollar ad buys that people have, it transcends a bunch of famous people endorsing someone, and it gets down to the actual heart of the question: When you walk into a voting booth, who do you trust to represent you in Washington, D.C.?” Mr. LaRose said in an interview after the event.

Ms. Noem, stumping for Mr. Moreno, told voters in Columbus on Monday that she had come “at the direct orders” of Mr. Trump, before issuing a warning: “You do not want to pick a candidate this primary that Donald Trump isn’t going to come here 1,000 percent for” in November.

But for some voters, like Mitzi Baird of Elyria, Mr. Trump’s word was not enough. She came to a Lincoln Day dinner in Vermilion certain that she would support Mr. LaRose but left leaning toward Mr. Dolan, despite being a “huge supporter” of Mr. Trump.

“I felt that Moreno was up there campaigning for Trump, not for himself,” Ms. Baird said. “I know Trump endorsed him, but he needs to say what he’s going to do — we know what Trump’s going to do.”

Michael C. Bender contributed reporting.


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