© 2024 Ideastream Public Media

1375 Euclid Avenue, Cleveland, Ohio 44115
(216) 916-6100 | (877) 399-3307

WKSU is a public media service licensed to Kent State University and operated by Ideastream Public Media.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Commentary: The specter of Trump hangs heavy over Ohio GOP Senate primary

President Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally at Dayton International Airport, Monday, Sept. 21, 2020, at Dayton, Ohio.
Alex Brandon
President Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally at Dayton International Airport, Monday, Sept. 21, 2020, at Dayton, Ohio.

By March 19, 2024, when Ohio voters go to the polls for the primary election, Donald Trump will either be on the doorstep of another GOP nomination for president or packing his toothbrush for a stretch behind bars.

Or maybe both.

Today, 10 months before the Ohio primary, Trump seems to be riding high among his loyal MAGA fans. The competition from Lilliputians like DeSantis, Pence, Haley, et al appears to be pretty thin soup. At least for now.

If you ever needed proof that Trump's popularity among Republican voters is a cult of personality, just look at the fact that he is surrounded on all sides by a host of civil suits and criminal investigations that would have sucked any other politician beneath the waves, never to be seen again. But that was back in the days when moral behavior actually counted for something.

It wasn't all that long ago.

That March 19 Ohio primary is about more than Ohioans weighing in on who the presidential nominees should be.

The other big-ticket item on that ballot will be a Republican primary for the U.S. Senate, chock full of GOP candidates eager to take on incumbent Democrat Sherrod Brown.

Fueling their lust for the GOP Senate nomination is the fact that Brown is one of three incumbent Democrats running for re-election in a state won by Trump in 2020.

Ohio general election voters, though, are notorious ticket splitters. And Brown is running for a fourth term in the Senate.

Nonetheless, the folks at the National Republican Senatorial Committee are all dancing on their desks in joy at the thought of taking out Brown. Go figure.

Right now, there are only two announced candidates for the GOP Senate primary: Cleveland area gazillionaire Bernie Moreno, who made his money selling cars; and Matt Dolan, the state senator from suburban Cleveland whose family owns the Cleveland Guardians baseball team.

ANALYSIS: Matt Dolan jumpstarts what's sure to be a crowded race for Sherrod Brown's seat in 2024

There will be more. Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose has been lusting for the nomination for years now. Congressman Warren Davidson of Troy, whose newly sprawling district reaches down into western Hamilton County, is being urged to run by the ultra-conservative and deep-pocketed Club for Growth. Those deep pockets may be enough to convince him to jump in.

But when they think about Trump and how to deal with him in their campaigns, they all approach it from different angles:

  • Moreno: Slavish devotion and complete adoration.
  • Dolan: Ignoring Trump as he did in his 2022 Senate campaign, focusing instead on trashing Joe Biden and Sherrod Brown.
  • LaRose: Secretly yearning for Trump's support. But trying hard to act cool and pretending it doesn't matter.
  • Davidson: Would likely tread lightly around Trump. After all, Trump and the Club For Growth have been feuding for quite some time.

Last week, LaRose was the subject of a story in Politico that probably wouldn't sit well with Trump. In fact, it probably torpedoed any chance LaRose had to win Trump's endorsement.

Politico obtained a recording of LaRose speaking to a closed-door meeting of the Cuyahoga Valley Republicans last month, telling them that while Trump's blessing still matters, it's not as big a deal as it used to be.

About 20% of GOP voters would vote for whoever Trump endorses, LaRose said.

"There is another 20% that care about who he endorses but that's not going to the main decision maker," LaRose said. "And there's probably another 60% of the party that doesn't care who he endorses."

Hoo boy! The hired help at Mar-a-Lago will be wiping the ketchup off the dining room walls when he sees that.

Then, LaRose made it worse by speculating about conversations between Trump and Max Miller, the northeast Ohio congressman who used to work in Trump's White House. Miller is the son-in-law of Moreno.

"Max has been making trips down to Mar-a-Lago, saying, 'Hey Mr. Trump, President Trump, can you endorse my father-in-law?' " LaRose said on tape. "Notice that (Trump) didn't endorse him, but he said nice things about him."

From the archives: Matt Dolan Wants To Change The Subject In Ohio's GOP Senate Primary

All of this talk by LaRose — which was never meant to see the light of day — has just emboldened Moreno to trumpet the fact that, when he entered the race, Trump praised him on Truth Social.

So far, Moreno's candidacy has been notable for two things:

  • His off-the-wall suggestions that the descendants of white soldiers who fought in the Civil War on the Union side be paid reparations because they helped free the slaves. There was a lot of head-scratching over that.
  • His declaration that Donald Trump was "the greatest president of my lifetime" on an April YouTube video. Moreno was born in 1967, while Lyndon Johnson was president. That covers 11 presidents, from Johnson to Biden; and includes Ronald Reagan, whom Republicans worship the way Democrats worship FDR.

Moreno, whose parents came to the U.S. from Colombia when he was five, has suggested the government shut down until the southern border is sealed. He also buys into Trump's argument that that 2020 election was somehow "stolen" — a complete falsehood.

Dolan, on the other hand, has been the complete opposite of a Trump sycophant, giving Moreno more red meat to chew on.

Dolan was asked in an April appearance on CBS if he would support Trump if he is the Republican presidential nominee.

"The Republican nominee has got to be somebody who focuses on tomorrow," Dolan said. "All of the issues we talked about — taking on inflation, border security. If the Republican nominee runs on yesterday; if he runs on a campaign of yesterday and they win? Look I'm going to take a long, hard look as to whether they're actually representing what we need to get done in Washington."

Don't see I'd support Trump in there anywhere, do you?

That set off Moreno saying what Dolan said about possibly not supporting the GOP nominee for president was "disqualifying, but that's up to the voters."

Dolan doesn't pander to Trump. But he does borrow from Trump's agenda now and then, when he agrees with the former president.

He did recently, when he put out a statement blasting Biden and Brown for creating a porous southern border that allows guns and drugs to flow into this country.

Dolan picked up on a statement Brown made on NBC's Meet the Press that makes it seem Brown doesn't care about border security.

Here's the Brown quote as used by Dolan and other Republicans: "I don't hear a lot about immigration from voters except from people on the far right."

ANALYSIS: Ohio's 2024 Senate primary is shaping up to be a repeat of 2022

That's the part of the quote they use. Here's the full quote, emphasis mine: "I don't hear a lot about immigration from voters except from people on the far right that always want to gain political advantage by talking about it."

Oh. That's a different kettle of fish.

Batten down the hatches. It's going to be a rough 10 months. With the specter of Donald Trump looming over everything the candidates do and say.

That's just life in the Cult of Donald.

Howard Wilkinson is in his 50th year of covering politics on the local, state and national levels.