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Republicans running to face Ohio’s Democratic US Sen. Sherrod Brown this fall vie for voters’ trust

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — A fractious three-way Republican primary for the chance to unseat Democratic U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown this November is culminating in Ohio, where candidates are divided more over their pasts than their policy positions.

Cleveland businessman Bernie Moreno, Secretary of State Frank LaRose and state Sen. Matt Dolan all favor some level of federal abortion restriction, a position they don’t see as running counter to Ohio voters’ resounding approval last year of constitutional reproductive healthcare guarantees. All three also favor tough treatment of immigrants lacking permanent legal status, restrictions on gender-transition surgery for transgender minors and limiting the teaching of certain sexuality- and race-related topics in schools. The Republican candidates also believe their ideas and their party are better for the economy.

It’s whether voters can trust them at their words that the three — and the deep-pocketed super PACs backing them — are fighting over ahead of Ohio’s March 19 primary. The final debate is Wednesday at Miami University in Oxford.

Moreno, a wealthy former car dealer and blockchain entrepreneur endorsed by former President Donald Trump, paints LaRose and Dolan as untrustworthy “career politicians,” while casting himself as an accomplished businessman and an outsider.

LaRose, an Army veteran and former state senator twice elected statewide but viewed as diminished by his failed efforts to secure Trump’s backing, highlights that Moreno and Dolan are millionaire self-funders and “former Democrats.”

“I think that, as Ohioans do their research over the next two weeks, what they’re going to see is that there’s only one candidate in the race who has been consistently conservative, has always fought for their values, and also really only one who they can trust,” LaRose said in a interview.

He said both Moreno and Dolan “have very recently had some very liberal views on things and now want you to believe that they’re somehow different.”

Dolan, a member of the family that owns baseball’s Cleveland Guardians who never fought for Trump’s endorsement, said he was a registered Democrat when he was younger — as was Trump himself — but has been a Republican since 1994. He said it’s his opponents who are trying to reinvent themselves.

In an interview, he said both Moreno and LaRose formerly criticized Trump before promoting him, which he contends is just one example of the two men’s policy migrations over time.

“I think people are seeing in me that I’m a consistent conservative who’s tried to get things done,” he said. “I’ve not deleted any of my history, I’m not walking away from things I’ve done, and most people see what I’ve done has actually helped them — a lot like Trump.”

Both Moreno and Dolan also competed in the 2022 Senate race, a messy and crowded contest won by Trump-backed memoirist and venture capitalist JD Vance. Moreno dropped out of the primary at Trump’s behest, and Dolan finished third.

This year’s damaging cross-blows — coming at Ohio voters in campaign appearances, debates and millions of dollars of TV ads — have left Republican voters deeply divided over who to pick to challenge Brown, among this fall’s most vulnerable Democrats with control of the Senate in play.

“There’s no choice,” Republican voter Paula Stevens, 73, of Delaware, Ohio, said recently while grocery shopping north of Columbus. She said the candidate choices, for both Senate and president, have hit rock bottom.

Ohio Democrats are desperate to reelect Brown, in a state where all three branches of government have long been controlled by Republicans. The party has reveled in divisions surfacing in what they brand the Republican Senate “slugfest,” taking every opportunity to amplify each intraparty attack as it’s lodged.

Not that they need amplifying.

Between now and March 19, yet-malleable voters could be subjected to some $4.5 million in additional advertising — capping a total for the race that the Columbus-based political ad firm Medium Buying puts at $19 million.

The conservative Club for Growth, which has endorsed Moreno and touted his business successes in previous advertising, plans to spend another $2.9 million against LaRose, and possibly Dolan. PACs supporting Dolan and LaRose plan to spend a combined $1.4 million attacking Moreno.

Television isn’t the only place where the slams are taking place.

During a recent pro-Moreno rally, Donald Trump Jr. took a jab at Dolan over the renaming of his family’s baseball team.

“If you’re willing to change the name of the Cleveland Indians to appease like three woke lunatics, what knee won’t you bend when you get to Washington, D.C.?” the younger Trump said.

Buckeye Leadership Fund, a super PAC supporting Dolan, has a microsite up dubbed “Which Bernie?,” which compares some of Moreno’s past policy positions to those of liberal Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. Among issues it raises is that Moreno supported bringing the Gay Games to Cleveland, which was described at the time as “a major win” for the city’s economy.

LaRose also is being attacked for appearing to support the LGBTQ+ community.

Ads featuring footage from a short video he recorded congratulating Equality Ohio, an LGBTQ+ rights organization, on its 30th anniversary, call him “too liberal for Ohio.” LaRose said he viewed the recording as “a nice gesture” toward a group whose policy positions don’t align with this own — “because I’m the secretary of state for all Ohioans.”

As of the last federal reporting deadline, Brown had raised $27.8 million, $9.5 million more than Dolan, Moreno and LaRose have raised combined. The national Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has committed upwards of $10 million more to boosting the reelection bids of Brown and Democratic Montana Sen. Jon Tester.

Among the Republicans, LaRose has loaned his own campaign $250,000, Moreno’s loaned his $3 million and Dolan has loaned his $7 million.

Julie Carr Smyth, The Associated Press


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