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Nasty GOP race for Ohio Senate nomination nears the end

Rich candidates and super PACs hurl attacks, with Democrats try to stir them up

From left, Matt Dolan, Frank LaRose and Bernie Moreno, the Republican candidates in the primary to run against Ohio Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown, attend the Columbiana County Lincoln Day Dinner in Salem, Ohio on Friday.
From left, Matt Dolan, Frank LaRose and Bernie Moreno, the Republican candidates in the primary to run against Ohio Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown, attend the Columbiana County Lincoln Day Dinner in Salem, Ohio on Friday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

SALEM, Ohio — The three contenders slugging it out in Ohio’s costly and contentious Republican primary made a final push over the weekend to win over what polls suggest is a considerable pool of undecided voters.

Ron Grey, 70, is one of the voters who have yet to make up their minds. “I’m still noodling it over,’’ said Grey, who came to the annual Lincoln Day Dinner in Salem on Friday night to hear state Sen. Matt Dolan, Secretary of State Frank LaRose and former car dealer and technology executive Bernie Moreno make their closing arguments. The winner of Tuesday’s primary will face Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown in November. 

Grey said he’s troubled by the increasingly bitter tenor of the race, which is playing out on the campaign trail and on the airwaves in ads funded by the candidates and a bevy of super PACs. “It’s been a pretty dirty campaign and that concerns me,” he said. “They’re so busy digging at each other that they haven’t taken the time to express their views on the issues.” 

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Dolan had put $9 million of his own money into the race and Moreno $4.2 million through Feb. 28, the closing date of the most recent filing to the Federal Election Commission. But since then, Dolan has added $1.2 million and Moreno added $300,000.

And outside groups that have to file reports within days of making expenditures have spent $26 million, most of it on negative messages. Through Friday, $3.1 million was spent against Dolan, $4 million against LaRose and $9.2 million against Moreno.

Republican Senate candidate Bernie Moreno speaks at the Columbiana County Lincoln Day Dinner in Salem, Ohio on Friday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Brown, meanwhile, has the benefit of there being no primary opponent to drain his vast campaign account: as of Feb. 28, he had $13.5 million on hand to use in the runup to November. 

For Republicans, the stakes are enormous: Brown is one of the  most vulnerable senators and unseating him is key to the GOP’s hopes of regaining control of the chamber. In Ohio, which has gone from a bellwether state to a deeply conservative stronghold in less than a generation, he is the sole remaining Democrat holding statewide office.

But unlike Republicans in other battleground states, the Ohio GOP has failed to unite around a candidate. The fractured field features Dolan, an establishment conservative whose family owns the Cleveland Guardians baseball team; LaRose, who started the race with the highest name recognition but lacks the personal wealth of his two competitors; and Moreno, who has never held elective office and who won the endorsement of former President Donald Trump.

At a rally in Dayton on Saturday afternoon, Trump praised Moreno as an “America first champion” and a political outsider who would be “a warrior in Washington.”

The former president also mocked Dolan as “a weak RINO,” or Republican-in-name-only, who’s “trying to become the next Mitt Romney.” 

Dolan is the least MAGA of the three but that doesn’t mean he’s a member of the Never Trump Republican resistance. He supports “securing and sealing our border,” restrictions on abortion and “protecting women’s sports” by barring trans athletes from competing. But he also supports U.S. aid to Ukraine, which puts him at odds with Trump, and he has the backing of two pillars of Ohio’s GOP establishment: Gov. Mike DeWine and former Sen. Rob Portman.

Dolan, who says he already cast his ballot for Trump in Ohio’s presidential primary, has trod a careful path: embracing some of the former president’s policies while seeking to create distance with the man himself.

In the campaign’s final weekend, he brushed aside Trump’s critique.

Republican Senate candidate Matt Dolan attends the Columbiana County Lincoln Day Dinner in Salem, Ohio on Friday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

“What is said in the last 10 days of a campaign [or] through a paid ad, I can’t worry about,’’ Dolan said Friday in an interview. “I’ve focused on what I’ve accomplished, and I believe that we’ve worked hard to get that message out and I think it has baked in.’’

Polls suggest Dolan is gaining momentum, a surge powered by a flood of ads paid for by Dolan’s campaign and a Super PAC funded by his parents. 

At the Lincoln Day Dinner in Salem, a community of about 12,000 roughly 20 miles from the site of last year’s trail derailment in East Palestine, the three men were seated alongside one-another, beneath a large banner with Trump’s photo and behind a bronze bust of Abraham Lincoln that someone had topped with a red “Trump 2020” cap. 

The candidates were cool but cordial to one another. The event was held the day after The Associated Press reported that an email address of Moreno, who has embraced anti-LGBTQ positions, was used to create an account on a website for casual sexual encounters seeking “men for 1-on-1 sex.”

Moreno’s campaign said the account was the work of a former intern, who created it as part of a prank. Neither Moreno nor his opponents mentioned the allegations publicly at the dinner. 

Moreno said he is the only true conservative in the race. “We’re gonna save this country. Because if we don’t, this country will be unrecognizable in three or four years,’’ he told the crowd at the Lincoln Day dinner.

Dolan leaned heavily on his record in the state legislature and portrayed himself as a pragmatist who can get things done. “We do need fighters to go to Washington…But the reality is I’ve been fighting my entire…public life and getting results because if we’re not getting results, we’re just shouting,” he said. 

Republican Senate candidate Frank LaRose speaks to voters at Tremont Coffee in Massillon, Ohio on Saturday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

LaRose, who has seen his early lead evaporate and now lags behind Dolan and Moreno with 16 percent of the vote in last week’s Emerson College Polling/The Hill poll, has focused heavily on battling for parents’ rights and against “woke” policies such as diversity initiatives. “We’ve got classrooms teaching children to hate this country based on a skewed and false version of American history,’’ he said. “I’m a father, but I’m also a fighter and I can tell you my wife and I are not interested in co-parenting with the government.”

Democrats have been watching the chaos — while also stirring up some of their own. 

A Super PAC aligned with Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer has invested about $3.2 million — including $2.5 million reported on Friday —  to lift up Moreno. The group, Duty and Country PAC, is running TV ads portraying Moreno as a close ally of Trump who is “too conservative for Ohio.” While the ad looks like an attack, it aims to boost Moreno’s standing among Republican primary voters — a sign that Democrats view him as the weakest opponent.

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

In the waning days of the campaign, ads by the candidates and their supporters have grown increasingly personal. A super PAC supporting Dolan has questioned his opponents’ conservative credentials and criticized Moreno’s business dealings. A new TV ad that began running after the AP story broke features a narrator saying Moreno, “a married man, trawled the internet… ‘looking for young guys to have fun with while traveling,’” before declaring that he is “damaged goods.” 

The ugliness of the race has turned off some Republicans. “I hate last-minute attacks,’’ Mike Halleck, president of the Columbiana County Board of Commissioners, said at the Lincoln Day dinner. 

Halleck, who ran for Congress in 2002, said Republicans will need all their firepower to defeat Brown. “Sherrod Brown has done a heck of a job over the years finding his niche and promoting Sherrod Brown,’’ Halleck said. “He may be the only one who can be that liberal and survive in Ohio. He’s a great campaigner and he has an uncanny way of relating to people.”

Cyndi Baronzzi Dickey, the Republican mayor of Salem, said voters have been inundated with negative ads. “There’s so much out there in the press and on the commercials and things that are being said that I don’t think are real accurate,’’ said Dickey, who is backing LaRose. “You know, they can put anything on an ad.”

But Alex Triantafilou, chairman of the Ohio Republican Party, says he isn’t too concerned. 

“We’ve seen this time and again in the primaries,’’ he said. “You’ve got [32] percent of Ohioans right now saying they’re undecided, which means they’re not listening to all this noise anyway.”

Triantafilou noted that the 2022 Senate primary was also a divisive and nasty contest but the party came together around the eventual nominee, J.D. Vance, who wound up defeating Democrat Tim Ryan. 

“This race is going to be a national question of whether or not we want to support Joe Biden’s agenda or want a new direction, and none of this is going to matter,’’ Triantafilou said. 

Amounts candidates gave or loaned to their campaigns were corrected in this report.

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