Bare-knuckle brawl putting Trump influence to the test: What to expect in Ohio’s Republican Senate primary

A Republican primary in the Buckeye State comes down to personal attacks across familiar battle lines, writes John Bowden in Sandusky

Monday 18 March 2024 20:59 GMT
Donald Trump looks on as his favoured candidate for the US Senate, Bernie Moreno, speaks at a rally in Dayton
Donald Trump looks on as his favoured candidate for the US Senate, Bernie Moreno, speaks at a rally in Dayton (AP)

As wind ripped through the grounds of the Dayton Air Show on Saturday, former president Donald Trump and his assembled loyalists made a last-minute bid to boost one of their own past the finish line.

“You gotta win, Bernie!” the former president mock-pleaded. “Don’t leave me alone!”

Republican presidential candidate and former President Donald Trump, left, listens as Senate candidate Bernie Moreno speaks at a campaign rally March 16, 2024, in Vandalia, Ohio (AP)

Ohio presents a unique moment for Mr Trump’s control of the Republican Party. After an embarrassing showing by his hand-picked chosen in 2022, the former president’s tendency to put his thumb on the scale in competitive GOP primaries is irking more and more Republican officials, even as many publicly continue to endorse his presidential bid. He’s done it again in Ohio: endorsing car dealership owner Bernie Moreno in a three-way race against fellow Republicans Matt Dolan and Frank LaRose, respectively a state senator and Ohio’s secretary of state.

Matt Dolan is one of the two candidates running against Trump’s favoured winner, Bernie Moreno (AP)

Polls show the race to be close, with single digits supporting the three men in some surveys. The race is unique; as many as four in 10 likely Republican voters were undecided as of last week. And mud-slinging has begun in earnest, too: an ally of Mr Moreno sent out a flier to Republicans in the mail labelling Mr LaRose an ally of transgender rights. His enemies, separately, have circulated a story from the Associated Press which revealed that an email address used by the Trump-backed Moreno was registered on a sex website, Adult Friend Finder, in 2008 seeking “young guys to have fun with while travelling.” (The Moreno campaign has released a statement from a former intern for Mr Moreno claiming that the account was created as a prank.)

Part of the reason for the vitriol can be attributed to the battle lines in the race, which have separated the major factions of the modern-day Republican Party in clear fashion. On one side is Mr Moreno, backed by Mr Trump and his allies, but facing questions about his conservative bona fides. On another island is Mr Dolan, endorsed by the GOP’s former party establishment including Ohio’s moderate-by-comparison governor Mike DeWine, making the argument that the party needs to leave Donald Trump behind. And third is a faction represented by Mr LaRose – the segment of the GOP which remains loyal to Donald Trump in the latter’s own races but back more traditional conservative politicians in local races; Ted Cruz and Josh Mandel to Donald Trump and JD Vance.

Another key reason for the race’s intensity is the massive swathe of undecideds who are making up their minds this final weekend of the primary. With St Patrick’s Day celebrations across the state as a backdrop, Mr Dolan and Mr LaRose crisscrossed the state holding smaller events and attending gatherings ranging from local GOP events to sleepy American Legion hangouts.

Candidate Frank LaRose has been the subject of smears by Moreno’s associates (Reuters)

The big event threatening to turn the race from a dead heat into a runaway win for Mr Moreno was Saturday’s Trump rally in Dayton. Several Trump fans entering the rally told The Independent that they knew very little about the race itself, or either of Mr Moreno’s challengers: they were simply going to support him through the strength of Donald Trump’s endorsement. A final poll of the race released by Emerson on Monday indicated that possibility was beginning to play out.

One rally attendee, Stan Strohmenger, explained the reasoning behind the political strength of a Trump endorsement as he departed the former president’s event.

“You know what you have with Donald Trump … guaranteed ironclad,” he said in an interview. “Why would you even look at anyone else?”

Other Republicans, who he accused of “lying” to voters for years, had nothing close to the same effect with their own endorsements.

“With Trump, the proof is in the pudding. He made promises, he kept them. He loves his country, he loves God. He wouldn’t endorse somebody that wasn’t the real thing.”

That’s the dynamic facing the Dolan and LaRose campaigns heading into Tuesday. Though Mr Trump’s event was considerably smaller than the crowds which have been drawn to his events in past years, the fact remains that his support of Moreno could have a strong effect on the final results. (It apparently wasn’t enough for the scandal-plagued would-be congressman JR Majewski, another guest of the former president on Saturday, who exited his own race earlier this month despite claiming that he would have won his contest on Tuesday.)

“If Moreno wins, it will be a testament to the importance of a Trump endorsement,” said Dr Kevin Wagner, Emerson’s polling director, in a statement accompanying his outfit’s final survey results.

With so many undecideds and the race as close as it is, the three candidates are continuing to campaign right up to the final buzzer. Mr LaRose, who is in a close third place according to polling, spent Sunday having close, personal conversations with small groups of voters at events across Erie and Huron counties; The Independent observed him moving from table to table at two events, trading military stories with veterans and leaning heavily into the possible appeal of sending the first Green Beret to the US Senate. He was set to continue those small events throughout Monday, capping off the night with a hometown rally on a farm on which he once worked in Copley. Despite polling indicating him behind, he and his staff projected confidence in their ability to win on Tuesday.

At a press gaggle in Sandusky, Mr LaRose made it clear on Saturday that he understood the threat posed by Mr Moreno and identified the businessman as his sole target. Asked about the former president’s endorsement, as well as that of Mr DeWine, Mr LaRose went on the offensive and stated that no amount of support could “cover for such a liberal background” in his opponent’s record. Mr Dolan, who is endorsed by a comparatively more moderate Republican in Mr DeWine and who has gone from leading Mr Moreno to trailing him in successive Emerson College polls, was not deigned worthy of mention.

“With a huge number of undecideds, this is a job interview,” said Mr LaRose, responding to a question on Sunday. Mr Trump, he added, “picked who he picked, and I’ll be his best ally in the Senate when I get there”.

He reinforced that loyalty to Mr Trump by adding that there would be “no daylight” between him and the former president come Wednesday if he wins the primary.

Even with three candidates, there are really only two outcomes for Tuesday: a defeat or a victory for Donald Trump. The actual political positions of the three men are largely similar – all three favour strict action on illegal immigration, including sending National Guard troops to the border for example. The real question is: does the former president still have the political strength to play kingmaker down the ballot, as he so clearly did in 2022?

Whichever candidate pulls out of Tuesday’s matchup will face off against Sherrod Brown, a popular incumbent Democrat in a purple state that looks increasingly red every cycle. Given the importance of the seat for both parties as control of the Senate is decided this fall, the ascension of Bernie Moreno to the nomination could set up Ohio as a repeat of the dismal performance of Mr Trump’s loyalists two years ago. His fall, conversely, could provoke a sigh of relief from Republicans who blame the president for those losses, and the failure of the party to take the upper chamber the last time around. It could also embolden other Republicans to buck the former president’s endorsement in future key primaries.

A victory on behalf of Mr Moreno could, arguably, be a boon for Democrats. Ever sensitive of the concept of endorsing a “loser”, Mr Moreno’s nomination could persuade the former president to spend more time and money in Ohio propping up his effort against Mr Brown – an expense that the increasingly financially-burdened Trump campaign may not truly be able to afford.

Tuesday’s contest will, more than anything, be a reflection of the personalities controlling the Republican Party over the GOP’s actual values. No matter who comes out of this three-way primary, the implications of their victory will be felt across the party as a whole.

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