A Non-MAGA Republican’s Late Surge In Ohio Is Scrambling A Key Senate Primary

It has Donald Trump's allies working overtime against establishment-friendly Matt Dolan, who may beat Trump's pick in the race. And even Dolan seems surprised.
Republican state Sen. Matt Dolan is tied for first in Ohio's GOP Senate primary, even without Donald Trump's endorsement.
Republican state Sen. Matt Dolan is tied for first in Ohio's GOP Senate primary, even without Donald Trump's endorsement.
(Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

BLUE ASH, Ohio — Not even Matt Dolan seems entirely sure what’s behind his late surge in the GOP Senate primary to determine who’ll face endangered Ohio Democrat Sherrod Brown in November.

“You build a campaign to win, and a lot of that is behind the scenes and it starts percolating, and you peak at the right time,” said Dolan, a 59-year-old state senator and multimillionaire lawyer whom polls have deadlocked with or slightly ahead of the Donald Trump-backed candidate in the race, Bernie Moreno.

That Dolan even seems to be within striking distance of the nomination in a red state, as the kind of Republican who says he likes the former president’s policies but not his personality, feels like a violation of GOP physics. And yet it’s the dynamic that’s defining this race in its final days, with implications for Trump’s ability to elevate his preferred candidates and win a Senate majority as he pursues yet another presidential bid.

“There’s some tarnish on that shine,” said Scott Milburn, a longtime Ohio GOP consultant who’s supporting Dolan, of the diminishing returns on Trump’s endorsements since the 2022 midterms. “Trump is still the gorilla in the room — but he’s probably not the 800-pound gorilla. He’s more like the 650-pound gorilla.”

That’s just one theory behind Dolan’s power in the polls — something akin to the Nikki Haley effect, which showed that up to 40% of the GOP primary electorate was open to turning the page on Trump and his “Make America Great Again,” or MAGA, movement. There’s no clear consensus on what’s driving Dolan, whether it’s more about Moreno’s weaknesses or Dolan’s strengths, or the plurality of voters who still haven’t made up their minds in what’s set to be a low-turnout election, with Trump already the presumptive GOP presidential nominee.

A Republican strategist who’s worked on Ohio Senate campaigns predicted that, like Haley, voters would ultimately reject Dolan as out of step with the party. “That’s not not where Republican primary voters are,” said the strategist, who asked not to be identified. “That’s why Bernie Moreno is likely going to win.”

Moreno, a 57-year-old who previously worked as a luxury car dealer and has never held elected office, benefited from an early Trump bump after receiving his endorsement in December. But Moreno’s inability to clear the field has the MAGA machine — including Ohio Sen. J.D. Vance, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem and even Trump himself — scrambling to drag Moreno over the finish line in Tuesday’s election.

It’s a dynamic that few expected to see in this race, which features Moreno as Trump’s guy, Dolan as the establishment conservative and Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose somewhere in the middle. The primary has essentially narrowed into a two-person contest in part because both Moreno and Dolan, a part-owner of the Cleveland Guardians, have each loaned their campaigns millions to saturate the airwaves and get ahead of LaRose, who entered the primary with the most name recognition as the only candidate previously elected statewide.

LaRose’s campaign, in a statement to HuffPost, noted the high percentage of persuadable voters who know LaRose, a veteran and former state legislator, and voted for him previously.

“Ohioans know and trust LaRose,” said spokesperson Ben Kindel. “He’s a proven conservative who runs into battle while the other two candidates desperately try to rewrite their records or brush away their past. Ohioans see through that.”

Bernie Moreno, a former luxury car dealer, earned Trump's endorsement in December.
Bernie Moreno, a former luxury car dealer, earned Trump's endorsement in December.
Bill Clark via Getty Images

The interplay has gotten nasty and personal, with the campaigns swiping at each other and Trump’s surrogates taking aim at Dolan, who’s running with the establishment backing of Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine and former Sen. Rob Portman, a pragmatist who retired from the Senate last year due to what he said was the lack of bipartisan consensus in Washington.

Portman stumped for Dolan this week near Cincinnati, headlining a meet-and-greet in a supporter’s living room and praising Dolan to the Blue Ash Republican Club — the kind of group whose members look to Trump for electoral guidance, even if Trump’s preferred candidates aren’t the best suited for a head-to-head with a Democrat. Though Ohio has lurched to the right since Trump’s 2016 election, polls generally show that Dolan is a stronger opponent for Brown, an economic populist drawing support from independents and moderate Republicans who might not be as open to a Trumpy Moreno.

“I think it’s really important we focus on who can win in November,” Portman told the Blue Ash group from between two Trump campaign banners, including one proclaiming 2024 the year of Trump’s “revenge tour.”

“Why? Because I think we can win West Virginia. That’s one — we need two [Senate seats]. And all the other states, the polling could go either way. … So Ohio could, once again, as we’ve been in the past, be the majority-making state.”

This was a tough crowd for Dolan. More than a few of the people here had already voted for Moreno.

“He’s not conservative enough for me,” Al Brauer, a 70-year-old retiree, said of Dolan. “And it doesn’t hurt that [Moreno’s] got President Trump’s endorsement, Ted Cruz’s endorsement, [Ohio Rep.] Jim Jordan’s endorsement.”

Dolan’s pitch to Republicans lacks red meat to the point of being vegetarian. As chair of the Ohio Senate’s Finance Committee, Dolan talks about balancing budgets and building coalitions to solve problems — not the type of thing that typically fires up the grassroots. He urges action on immigration and the border without railing against “illegals” or demanding full deportation of undocumented immigrants. As a lawmaker, he supported abortion restrictions and has a section on his website dedicated to “standing up for life.” Both he and Moreno have suggested that they would back a 15-week federal abortion ban with exceptions.

Speaking to the Blue Ash Republicans, Dolan (standing a few feet away from a table where the group had displayed a coveted and terrifying raffle prize — “The Trumpinator”) acknowledged “some differences” in policy and approach with his opponents.

“But I’m a candidate that’s standing before you and I’m not running away from my record,” he said. “I feel like I’ve been a consistent conservative who’s made Ohio better. I’ve never asked you to like everything that I’ve done. But I do want you to know that I’m transparent with you. I’m not going to just change who I am to get your vote.”

The line was a subtle jab at Moreno, who was a Trump critic before a rebrand as he ran for office. Moreno has close family ties to the former president. His daughter worked for Trump’s campaign and married (at Trump’s golf club) a former White House aide, Max Miller, who’s now in Congress. Moreno dropped out of Ohio’s crowded Senate primary two years ago at Trump’s apparent behest so Trump could guiltlessly back Vance, a bestselling author and venture capitalist who vaulted from fifth place to first in a matter of days following the endorsement.

“The entirety of the conservative movement has made it loud and clear: We want Bernie Moreno in Washington, D.C.”

- Senate candidate Bernie Moreno

Dolan finished at a close third in that race, a drag-down fight between five candidates that left Dolan mostly unscathed, in part because none of his opponents — who were mostly emulating Trump — perceived him as a real threat. Now Donald Trump Jr. is calling Dolan a “RINO” and “a pro-BLM liberal,” and whipping the rest of the MAGA army to do the same. Moreno, meanwhile, has come under scrutiny for his business record and touting himself as a self-made immigrant when, in fact, he was born into a prominent Colombian family.

Democrats have relished playing up the messiness of the current race in the hopes of weakening Moreno or whichever Republican emerges from the primary. This week, a super PAC aligned with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer launched an ad blitz highlighting Donald Trump’s endorsement of Moreno in an attempt to elevate the candidate thought to be a weaker opponent for Brown.

“The Republicans in this race have been more focused on fighting each other than fighting for Ohioans,” said Katie Smith, a spokesperson 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.”

On Thursday, The Associated Press published a report linking a work email address of Moreno’s to an adult website profile seeking men for sex, while citing his shifting stance on LGBTQ+ issues as a candidate. Moreno’s attorney blamed the incident on an intern, and the campaign has called the story a desperate, last-minute smear.

Moreno doubled down at a campaign stop Friday morning in Ashland, a small central Ohio city known as the balloon capital of the world. “It was 16 years ago. Somebody pulled a prank,” Moreno told two reporters afterward. “The AP knows that, the media knows that. Why is that a story?” A founder of the site, Adult Friend Finder, has also said that it seems consistent with a prank.

Moreno spoke for 30 minutes to a grassroots group mostly nodding along with him when the candidate, who became a U.S. citizen at 18, said the southern U.S. border should be secured against “murderers, gang members, rapists, child trafficking, human trafficking” before the country considers sending any more money overseas.

“I promise you one thing: If either one of my opponents wins, they will be a reliable vote against the agenda I just laid out,” Moreno said. “It’s why President Trump endorsed me. … The entirety of the conservative movement has made it loud and clear: We want Bernie Moreno in Washington, D.C. And Rob Portman, Mike DeWine and the Cleveland Plain Dealer want Matt Dolan.”

Bonnie Kaufman, a retired dairy farmer, said that she’s voting for Moreno because she shares his values and doesn’t like Dolan’s demeanor or how LaRose has run Ohio elections.

“I just watched Dolan on television,” she said. “He is so conceited. Just watching him I wouldn’t vote for him.”

She acknowledged, however, that Moreno might not be the strongest candidate against Brown, whom Republicans seem to regard with a mixture of dislike, frustration and respect.

“People just kind of go on name recognition,” she said, adding that many of the people she’s encountered canvassing for Moreno hadn’t heard of him. “They’re not like us, who really pay attention to what’s going on in an election.”

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