Ohio’s Republican establishment takes on Trump loyalists in tonight’s Senate primary

A contentious Republican primary for an Ohio Senate seat has become a divisive proxy race between Trump loyalists and the state’s more traditional conservatives.

The three candidates vying for the chance to unseat Democratic incumbent Sen. Sherrod Brown are Secretary of State Frank LaRose, state Sen. Matt Dolan and businessman Bernie Moreno.

Moreno has garnered GOP endorsements from Ohio’s junior senator, J.D. Vance, Rep. Jim Jordan, and most notably, former President Donald Trump. 

At a rally in Dayton on Saturday headlined by Trump, Moreno said, “This is the last gasp of breath of the swamp RINO establishment in Ohio.” RINO is an acronym for “Republican in Name Only,” a term Trump and his supporters use to describe critics of the former president within the Republican party. “I need you on Tuesday to stab it right in the heart and make it clear that in Ohio, we put America first,” Moreno added.

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, a more establishment Republican, gave his endorsement to a different candidate last week. He and his wife, Fran, chose Dolan for the job, whom Trump also calls a “RINO.”

Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump greets Ohio Republican candidate for U.S. Senate Bernie Moreno during a rally at the Dayton International Airport on March 16, 2024 in Vandalia, Ohio. 

Scott Olson / Getty Images

“We believe this proven conservative is the strongest candidate to beat Sherrod Brown in the fall,” they wrote in a statement.

DeWine, a former senator, lost his seat to Brown in 2006. Brown is now seeking his fourth term in the Senate in a state that trends red but was once considered a battleground state. Brown is the only Democrat who has won a statewide election in Ohio since 2006, aside from the state Supreme Court. 

Exit polls: Most voters in Ohio Senate primary think next senator should show support for Trump

Note: Percentages in exit polls may update as CBS News collects more data.

A big majority of those voting in the Ohio Republican primary for U.S. Senate say it’s important that their state’s next senator shows support for Trump, including more than half who feel that’s very important, early exit polls show.  

This is particularly true of those who are backing Moreno, who has been endorsed by Trump.  

Voters who are more conservative think it’s important for Ohio’s next senator to show support for Trump. This is not important to most moderate voters, but they make up a relatively small percentage of the electorate. 

This primary electorate looks similar to what we’ve seen over the course of the presidential primaries so far. Most Ohio GOP primary voters don’t think President Biden legitimately won the 2020 election, and a majority think Trump would be fit to serve as president even if he were convicted of a crime. 

Voters who hold these views overwhelmingly think it’s very important that the next Ohio senator show support for Trump. 

Most primary voters decided on their Senate candidate a while ago, but more than a quarter tell us they made up their minds in the last week.   

Exit polls: Immigration a top issue for Ohio GOP presidential primary voters

While CBS News has estimated that Trump is the Republican Party’s presumptive nominee, with enough delegates to be nominated at the GOP convention this summer, there is a presidential primary in Ohio on Tuesday. 

And in that contest, immigration is the top issue for GOP presidential primary voters, picked by 45% of voters, current exit polls show. That’s among the highest percentage we’ve seen in states where exit polls have been conducted. 

A majority of Ohio primary voters think most undocumented immigrants in the U.S. should be deported —this has been the case in each of the Republican primary states where exit polls have been conducted.   

A look at the candidates running in Ohio’s GOP Senate primary

In 2022, Trump-back candidates swept key primary races, but several eventually lost their general elections — allowing Democrats to deflect the “red wave” Republicans expected.

Vance was an exception. He was first elected to the Senate in 2022 with Trump’s endorsement, defeating Tim Ryan and filling the vacancy left by the retirement of moderate Republican Sen. Rob Portman. Vance won by about 6 points, although Portman defeated Democratic challenger Ted Strickland in 2016 by roughly 37 points. Earlier this month, Portman threw his support behind Dolan.

Although LaRose didn’t receive Trump’s endorsement, a campaign spokesperson said that he’d be a Trump ally if he’s elected to the Senate. The spokesperson called LaRose a “proven conservative who voters can trust.” Trump backed LaRose in the 2022 primary for Secretary of State, and ahead of the 2022 election, LaRose tweeted about the “serious problem” of voter fraud.

LaRose brought in the most money in the last quarter of 2023 but had the least cash on hand among his GOP rivals going into the new year. Unlike LaRose, both Dolan and Moreno had the ability to partially self-fund their campaigns. Dolan’s family owns the Cleveland Guardians baseball team, and Moreno owns a car dealership.

Democrats have also been spending in the Ohio GOP primary.

Last week, Duty and Country PAC went up with an ad touting Trump’s endorsement of Moreno and his support for a national abortion ban. The PAC is funded by a dark money group connected to the campaign arm for Senate Democrats. 

This was a successful strategy for Democrats in the 2022 midterm elections when they were expected to lose their majority. In the primaries, they boosted far-right Republican candidates they believed would be easier to beat in general elections.

The Ohio Senate race is one of only three rated “toss-ups” by the Cook Political Report, a non-partisan elections tracker. Brown’s seat is a top target for Republicans who hope to take control of the Senate.

The chair of the Senate Republican campaign arm, Steve Daines, has emphasized the importance of candidate recruitment this cycle — even endorsing in numerous Republican primaries. Still, Daines has not endorsed a candidate in the Ohio race.

In an interview with CBS News’s Major Garrett, Daines called Moreno, Dolan and LaRose “strong candidates.” He added, “But it’s not lost on any of us that when President Trump steps in and endorses a candidate, it is a huge boost to their candidacy. We started with J.D. Vance in 2022. J.D. was not leading in that primary – at that moment, and it was President Trump’s endorsement of J.D. Vance that propelled him to the primary win and the general election win.”

— Jake Rosen, Hunter Woodall, Jennifer De Pinto and Fred Backus contributed to this report.

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