Buckeye blitz: Ohio Senate primary tests strength of Trump endorsement

The presidential primary season may be over with President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump heading for a rematch, but several down-ballot races are up for grabs that will determine control of Congress. Ohio’s primary on Tuesday will decide which Republican takes on Democratic incumbent Sen. Sherrod Brown in November, as well as congressional contests key to the GOP House majority. This series, Buckeye Blitz, will examine the politics behind the races and the issues that will drive 2024 turnout. Part Two, below, looks at how the Ohio Senate primary has become the latest test of the former president’s sway with Republican voters.

COLUMBUS – The weight of Donald Trump’s endorsement is unquestioned in Republican politics. It can send a candidate to the front of the pack in a crowded primary, as it did for Sen. J.D. Vance (R-OH) in 2022’s Ohio Senate race.

Entrepreneur Bernie Moreno is hoping for a repeat on Tuesday. He landed Trump’s endorsement this cycle by casting himself as the “America First” Republican in the primary for Ohio’s other Senate seat.

Yet days of polling have cast a pall of uncertainty over the race, with Moreno swapping the lead with Matt Dolan, a state senator who has distanced himself from the former president.

At stake is the direction of the Republican Party in a primary that has become a proxy war between the pragmatic centrists who represent the “Old Guard” of the GOP and a Trumpy new wing that rejects compromise.

Dolan represents the former and Moreno the latter.

But the campaign has implications for the former president himself. A Moreno loss on Tuesday, should it come to pass, would be considered a political embarrassment that defies his newfound hold over the party, demonstrated by his decisive wins in the 2024 presidential primary.

Dolan brushed off an Emerson poll released on the eve of the election showing him down 9 points against Moreno.

“Polls go up, polls go down. We’ve been laser-focused this whole time on results tomorrow night,” he told the Washington Examiner at an event in Columbus on Monday.

However, Moreno, too, has been forced to navigate weeks of surveys showing him down or leading near the margin of error.

Moreno blames Dolan’s “trust fund” – he comes from a wealthy family that owns the Cleveland Guardians – for the race being a toss-up. “When you take that trust fund and you aim it right at me with a bunch of misleading, disgusting, and gross ads, then of course that’s going to happen,” he said on Sunday at an event outside of Cincinnati.

Yet the prospect of Moreno falling short with a Republican electorate very friendly to Trump, who won the state by 8 points in 2020, would be an astounding development.

Even more so because Dolan openly shies away from the former president.

Moreno does not just benefit from Trump’s endorsement. The Club for Growth, an influential conservative advocacy group, has spent more than $4 million supporting him, according to Medium Buying, and a slate of Republicans in Trump’s orbit, from South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem to Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, has stumped on his behalf.

Arizona Senate candidate Kari Lake campaigns for entrepreneur Bernie Moreno at an event in Milford, Ohio. (David Sivak/Washington Examiner)

Vance, appearing with Senate candidate Kari Lake in Milford, told the Washington Examiner that he dispelled the same concerns after winning his primary and predicted Moreno will “close this thing big in the final days.”

Multiple Republican strategists not affiliated with the campaigns similarly expect Moreno will prevail.

However, a Dolan victory on Tuesday night is a distinct possibility. One-fifth of likely primary voters are still undecided on the eve of the election, according to the Emerson poll, and they appear to be breaking disproportionately for Dolan.

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, who appeared at the event in support of Dolan on Monday, demurred when asked about the importance of Trump’s endorsement in the race.

“Well, I don’t think we know. Look, I think that there’s a lot of different factors in the campaign,” he told reporters in Columbus. “This campaign ultimately is not about Mike DeWine. It’s not about Donald Trump. It’s really, who is going to represent Ohio?”

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine addresses supporters of state Sen. Matt Dolan at a campaign event in Columbus. (David Sivak/Washington Examiner)

He predicted that voters will cast their ballot based on who can beat Sherrod Brown, the Democratic incumbent senator, in November.

“And there’s no doubt that Matt Dolan is the best person to beat him,” DeWine added.

One Ohio Republican strategist, speaking on condition of anonymity, told the Washington Examiner it would be an indictment of Moreno if he loses given his “structural advantages.”

On top of his support from Trumpworld, national Democrats have spent almost $3 million on campaign ads elevating Moreno, who polls worse against Brown compared to Dolan.

But the operative judged that Moreno’s lead would be solidified after Trump rallied outside of Dayton on Saturday, where thousands of spectators waited hours to see the former president.

Supporters of Donald Trump listen to the former president speak at a rally outside of Dayton, Ohio. (David Sivak/Washington Examiner)

The Washington Examiner’s interviews with rallygoers at that event, held at an airfield in Vandalia, dispelled any doubt about the weight of Trump’s endorsement, at least with his base of supporters.

“Anything Trump does, I will support because our country needs him,” said Vanessa Miller, a nurse from Cincinnati who had not yet decided whether she would vote on Tuesday.

However, those interviews also suggested that voters were largely unfamiliar with Moreno. One left the ballot for Senate blank when he voted before heading to the event on Saturday. 

The rally was held for that very reason. On big, red signs flanking the bleachers, Trump supporters were encouraged to vote and received pleas from his surrogates to tell their friends and family to do the same.

Yet the former president also hinted at a degree of anxiety as he riffed on his prepared remarks. “You’ve gotta win, Bernie. Don’t leave me alone. Don’t leave me alone, Bernie,” he said.

Moreno allies have attempted to make allegiance to Trump a dividing line in the race. Ohio voters are being inundated with negative campaign advertising, including commercials that frame Dolan as a liberal who is hostile to Trump.

Dolan has attempted to split the difference on the former president, telling voters he supports his policies but not his temperament. Moreno, taunting him as “Mitt Dolan,” a reference to the centrist senator from Utah, called that a “left-wing talking point.”

“I know what his personality is now after having run against him,” Moreno told the audience outside of Cincinnati. “Let me tell you something, you aren’t fit to shine Donald Trump’s shoes, OK?”

In Columbus, Dolan did not mention Moreno by name, but he not-so-subtly accused him of reinventing himself to win Trump’s endorsement. Leaked emails show Moreno was repulsed by the idea of a Trump presidency back in 2016.

“I’m the only one who’s actually executed Trump policies, I’m also the only one that hasn’t had to delete any of my tweets, any of my previous comments, about the president,” Dolan said.

CLICK HERE TO READ MORE FROM THE WASHINGTON EXAMINER

The Senate primary is not the only race where Trump has loomed large. Members of House Republican leadership withdrew their support for a candidate in Ohio’s 9th District after he was found to have criticized the former president in leaked audio.

Trump ultimately endorsed his rival, Derek Merrin, on Monday.


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