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Bernie Moreno: the Trump-convert firebrand targeting Ohio Senate seat

Bernie Moreno won a convincing victory in the Republican Senate primary in Ohio on Tuesday night ensuring that the firebrand rightwinger goes up against the Democrat Sherrod Brown in the vital race.

Moreno’s victory sees the Trump-backed politician become the party’s standard-bearer against Brown in a contest that could decide control of the US Senate.

But it also cast light on a controversial Democratic strategy of supporting extremist Republican candidates in party nomination races out of a belief they are easier to beat in the general election – thus upping the odds of a Democratic win, but also running the risk that those extremists could actually get elected.

At 57, Moreno is to his supporters the American Dream made flesh: a Colombia-born, Florida-raised car dealer turned powerful populist Republican voice.

Related: US primary elections: Biden and Trump notch wins with surprises in store down ballot

He is not, his lawyer insists, the author of a years-old post from his email account to the Adult Friend Finder website, seeking “young guys to have fun with” and “men for 1-on-1 sex”.

That scandal broke in the last days of the Ohio Senate primary but did not derail Moreno, who before gaining Trump’s backing voiced pro-LGBTQ+ views. A former intern (and donor) said he wrote the website post as an “aborted prank”.

Moreno may meanwhile have been boosted by an attack ad, backed by a group linked to Senate Democrats, that called him “too conservative for Ohio” and “too aligned” with Donald Trump.

The idea was to present the incumbent Democratic senator, Sherrod Brown, with an opponent easily portrayable as too extreme for Ohio. Such tactics have worked elsewhere, even in Republican states and particularly when linked to threats to reproductive rights, a profitable issue for Democrats since the conservative-dominated US supreme court removed the federal right to abortion.

Ohio, however, has trended sharply right since Trump entered politics and critics said Democrats were playing with fire.

On Saturday, in Dayton, Trump staged a fiery rally. On Tuesday, Moreno scorched to victory, belying close poll results to beat Matt Dolan, a state senator backed by Mike DeWine, the Republican governor, and Frank LaRose, the sitting secretary of state.

“We have an opportunity now,” Moreno said. “We have an opportunity to retire the old commie.”

That was an appropriately Trumpian insult to Brown, a populist Democrat first elected in 2007 but now seen as vulnerable as Republicans seek to retake the Senate.

Brown said: “The choice ahead of Ohio is clear: Bernie Moreno has spent his career and campaign putting himself first, and would do the same if elected. I’ll always work for Ohio.”

Moreno said: “I want to thank President Trump for all he did for me, for this campaign, for his unwavering support, for his love of this country. I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone who loves this country the way he does.”

It was a predictable display of fealty to a presumptive Republican presidential nominee who faces 14 criminal charges arising from his attempt to overturn his defeat by Joe Biden in 2020, culminating in the deadly January 6 attack on Congress.

Trump also faces 40 criminal charges over retention of classified information and 34 over hush-money payments to an adult film star. In civil cases, Trump is struggling to pay one multimillion-dollar bond, having been found liable for fraud, after paying another arising from a rape allegation a judge called “substantially true”.

Like many Republicans, Moreno was once against Trump. In 2016, as Trump surged to the nomination, Moreno called him a “lunatic” and a “maniac”, bent on “a hostile takeover” of the party.

Now, like almost all Republicans, Moreno says Trump should return to power.

“It’s going to be a tough next seven months,” Moreno said on Tuesday. “But we’re going to win this race in November, we’re going to retake the United States Senate, we’re going to have President Trump in the White House, we’re going to get the ‘America First’ agenda done.”

Aspects of that agenda Moreno has pushed on the campaign trail include providing “absolutely no more money for Ukraine, period” in its war with Russia and “restor[ing] the integrity of our elections”, a nod to Trump’s electoral fraud lie.

But Moreno also presents a danger to Brown because he will campaign on similar, blue-collar issues.

Before election day, Moreno defended Trump’s controversial prediction of a “bloodbath” if he loses to Biden in November, saying it was a reference to American industrial decline.

“This is America First territory,” Moreno told the rightwing network Newsmax, appearing with JD Vance, Ohio’s other US senator and a Republican populist too.

“Ohio knows, because … what’s happened in Lorain and Youngstown and Dayton and Cleveland and Columbus, once great, thriving cities, our industries have seen a bloodbath of disaster there so they understand … [Trump’s] comment, because they know what it’s like to have their dad, their grandfather lose their job that got shipped overseas. They’re not going to be fooled.”

On Tuesday night, he covered similar territory.

“People say I’ve lived the American dream,” Moreno said. “Started my tiny little car dealership with nothing. So, that’s not really, in my mind, what I view as the American Dream.”

Related: American dream of owning a home is dead, majority of renters say

Singling out his father-in-law, he said: “Dennis went to high school in Hobart, Indiana … graduated from high school, reported to work at US Steel … Goes to work there, was able to buy a home, buy a car, raise three kids, send them to good schools in safe communities and he’s able now to retire debt free. That’s the American dream. That’s what’s under assault. And that’s where we’re gonna get back.”

Commentators highlighted the battle to come.

Citing Moreno’s remarks about an American Dream now out of reach for many, Matt Lewis, a conservative columnist, said: “If he campaigns like this for the next eight months, Sherrod Brown’s in trouble.”

Rachel Bitecofer, a Democratic strategist, said: “Ohio, Maga extremist Bernie Moreno supports a national abortion ban. Pass it on.”

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