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MAGA vs. everyone: What today’s primary will tell us about the state of the GOP

CINCINNATI — Donald Trump is once again intervening in a crowded Senate primary here to boost a MAGA candidate. But this time, the establishment thinks it can stop him.

Some of the biggest names in Ohio’s old GOP guard have coalesced behind state Sen. Matt Dolan, who they view as best positioned to beat the incumbent Democrat, Sherrod Brown. Former car dealer Bernie Moreno, meanwhile, has the backing of Trump and the MAGA elite, including Sen. J.D. Vance, the Ohio Republican Trump lifted out of a messy primary two years ago.

The state is again key to Republicans’ fight to gain back control of the Senate, and the GOP may need only a single seat to win the majority. But while Ohio has significantly shifted to the right since voting twice for former President Barack Obama, it remains a politically dynamic state that now has a relatively moderate governor, a Democratic senator in Brown, and a Trump-aligned MAGA favorite in Vance.

That has morphed the bitter three-way Senate primary, which also includes Secretary of State Frank LaRose, into a battle between two competing Republican factions in the state over the direction and future of the party itself.

In the final two weeks of the race, Dolan gained the support of Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine and former Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio). That embrace of Dolan is a flex of the establishment’s remaining power: an attempted signal of what sway traditional conservatism may still hold within a state GOP that has increasingly embraced Trumpism.

For Moreno and Trump, it’s an assertion of the MAGA movement’s continued growth into the mainstream of the party. They’re embracing the war with the establishment.

“The Never Trumper movement is still alive in Ohio, it’s the last gasp of breath” Moreno said in an interview last week at a Lincoln Day dinner for the Lake County GOP. “And on Tuesday, we’re going to kill that last gasp of breath.”

Dolan is the only one of the three candidates who did not seek Trump’s endorsement. While he praises Trump’s policies, he’s remained consistent in his position that Trump did not win the 2020 election and bears blame for the Jan. 6 insurrection. He has benefited from the presence of LaRose, who rose through the ranks in Ohio politics in the establishment as a pragmatist, but shifted toward an embrace of MAGA politics.

That’s left the race a toss-up, according to recent polling, with Dolan seeking to consolidate the rest of the electorate while Moreno and LaRose fight for Trump loyalists. Dolan and his allies emphasize an electability argument: He is the strongest candidate to take on Brown, a prolific fundraiser and battle-tested campaigner.

“There are more independent voters than Democrats or Republicans combined,” Dolan said in an interview. “I am presenting myself as a conservative that appeals to conservative Republicans, but I can tell a story to independents.”

Recent signs suggest his model may be working. Dolan has outspent everyone on TV and surged in some recent public and private polling, momentum that earned him a bevy of attack ads from his opponents and the conservative group Club for Growth, which is backing Moreno. His rise even inspired Senate Democrats to dump $3 million to meddle in the race on behalf of Moreno, their preferred candidate. The race has turned increasingly vicious, particularly toward Moreno, raising some fears in D.C. over his electability in November.

“Matt Dolan is the best person to beat him,” DeWine said of Brown. “The Democrats tell us that. They’re putting money in here to get him defeated.”

The dueling visions for the future of the party were on full display during the closing days of the race. Moreno held a rally with Trump, Vance and a roster of prominent MAGA personalities. Dolan campaigned with Portman and spent election eve with DeWine, rallying supporters at a restaurant in Columbus’ German Village, where they stressed Dolan’s appeal with swing voters and his commitment to passing legislation over accruing cable TV hits.

At a St. Patrick’s Day event Sunday at a brewery outside of Cincinnati, Moreno, Vance and Arizona Senate candidate Kari Lake addressed several hundred supporters clad in green clothes and MAGA hats. Their star power was on display: attendees lined up for roughly 30 minutes after the event ended to take photos.

Lake railed against “Mitt Dolan” in her speech and needled his family for folding “like a cheap Chinese lawn chair” in changing the name of the baseball team they own from the Cleveland Indians to the Cleveland Guardians. Vance opened his remarks with a warning about the “RINOs” in the Senate, claiming they would cause “the end of the Republican Party and the end of this republic.”

Dolan’s surrogates painted a far rosier picture.

Dolan would find common ground to get things done in D.C., not just throw out “red meat” to the base, Portman told supporters at two campaign stops around the Cincinnati area. He said that Dolan’s support for helping Ukraine was a factor in his decision to endorse.

“My goal is to achieve results that are conservative and, you know, that’s a different goal than some of the MAGA Republicans who view just fighting as more important,” Portman said in an interview after the event.

But when Portman retired in 2022, he was replaced by Vance after a vicious GOP primary that included Dolan. Vance’s victory signaled momentum for the MAGA movement and a populist turn in the Ohio GOP.

Still, it does not have full grasp on the party: DeWine remains in office and relatively popular.

“Gov. DeWine’s a proven vote-getter in the state,” said Alex Triantafilou, Ohio’s GOP chair. “He’s won election after election. And Rob Portman won by 20 percentage points running for Senate. And JD Vance won. So there’s room in the party for all different views.”

Dolan himself downplays the differences. He has staked out less hardline positions on issues such as abortion access but has more conservative views on the border. He is selling a solutions-oriented approach that’s more genteel.

“Civility in politics is not a weakness,” he said. “As Republicans, particularly, we cannot judge strength by how loud we are. We have to start judging strength on what we get done.”

And Dolan maintained that Moreno’s criticism of Portman as a Republican of the past does not jibe with his actions in the current race. Dolan said Portman said all three candidates had sought his endorsement.

A person close to Moreno’s campaign denied that he had sought Portman’s backing, and LaRose declined to say whether he had done so. Portman declined to comment on private conversations.

Dolan’s path relies heavily on the presence of LaRose, a former Green Beret who started the race as the front-runner because of his statewide office.

LaRose could still have some residual appeal for Trump skeptics. He worked as an advance man for former Ohio Gov. John Kasich and cited Portman as a mentor. LaRose did not endorse Trump in 2020, and as Ohio’s chief election official insisted the state’s 2020 elections were fair and accurate.

But LaRose faced a primary challenge from the right in his 2022 reelection bid as secretary of state, and his assessment of the election became less clear as he courted Trump’s support. In his 2024 Senate bid, LaRose appeared at first to try to straddle both lanes before planting himself in the MAGA wing.

In a brief interview, LaRose pushed back against the idea that he flip flopped. He said he believes in “an approach that is civil and working with people” to get things done. “That doesn’t mean that I’ve changed who I am,” he said.

But it was Moreno who got the Trump endorsement.

Moreno was also critical of Trump before his election in 2016 and again in the aftermath of Jan. 6. Dolan has seized on the pivots by both his opponents, accusing them of shifting with the political winds.

“I’m also the only one that hasn’t had to delete any of my tweets,” Dolan said, “any of my previous comments about the president.”

What the Ohio GOP voters want will be made clear Tuesday.

Whether the rest of the electorate agrees won’t be known until November.

“Do you want to go back to the Romney, Bush, Cheney, Kasich, DeWine, Portman party?” Moreno asked during a rally on Sunday with Vance, drawing a shout of “NO!” from the crowd.

Or, he said, “Do you want the party of JD Vance? President Trump?”

The crowd cheered.

“I think the ayes have it, JD,” Moreno said.

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