Bernie Moreno, a staunch Trump ally, is emerging as the leading candidate for the Republican nomination to face Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) in what will be one of the most closely-watched Senate races this year.
Moreno started off the primary with low name recognition and trailed his other GOP rivals in most early polls. But a coveted endorsement from the former president, as well as from other leading Republican figures, has elevated him over his chief rivals, Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose and state Sen. Matt Dolan.
In a sign of his growing strength in the primary, Brown has already started attacking Moreno — knocking him over his ties to Trump in an effort to galvanize Democrats and others leery of the former president.
“Moreno now has the inside track to win this [primary] race, presuming he’s willing to spend some of his own money to communicate Trump’s endorsement and press the case against Dolan and LaRose,” said Ohio-based Republican strategist Mark Weaver.
Brown is one of two incumbent Democrats running for reelection in a state that voted for former President Trump in 2016 and 2020, making him one of the top targets for Republicans seeking to take back the Senate majority in November.
The race for the Republican nomination quickly became crowded. Dolan, who has served in the state Senate since 2017 and was an unsuccessful candidate for Sen. JD Vance’s (R-Ohio) seat in 2022, was the first to jump into the race.
He was joined by Moreno, the father-in-law of Rep. Max Miller (R-Ohio) and a car dealership owner who also briefly ran for Senate in 2022, and LaRose, who has served as Ohio secretary of state since 2019.
LaRose entered the race as the front-runner, being the only candidate elected to statewide office and having a name-recognition advantage over Dolan and Moreno. Early polls showed LaRose leading his opponents in a three-way contest, though a plurality indicated they were undecided.
But the race took a turn in December as some polls began to show Moreno moving ahead of his rivals. Trump also weighed in that month to back Moreno, giving him the support of the most dominant player within the GOP.
Unlike some of the other Senate races that the party is targeting this cycle, the Senate Republicans’ campaign arm is not backing any candidate in Ohio, arguing that any of them would be strong challengers to face Brown.
Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.), the chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC), said Wednesday that the GOP cannot take the race against Brown for granted because the incumbent is strong and knows “how to win” in a red-leaning state.
He told attendees at an event for the conservative-leaning think tank The Ripon Society the NRSC worked to prevent candidates who were not electable from getting in the race.
“But we think that Matt Dolan, Bernie Moreno and Frank LaRose are all capable of beating Sherrod Brown,” Daines said. “We will have a primary … in March, and we’ll be off to the general election.”
But after Trump’s endorsement, Moreno has been receiving notable endorsements from top GOP leaders this month, including from high-profile Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) and Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), the third-highest ranking Republican in the Senate.
All three candidates have said they would support Trump as the Republican nominee, but Trump’s endorsement in a contested GOP primary has often contributed to determining the eventual winner.
“The other endorsements are the saplings in the forest, and the Trump endorsement is the mighty oak,” Weaver said. “That’s the one the Bernie Moreno will be touting the most.”
In what seems to be recognition of Moreno’s rise, Brown has started to go after him in fundraising pitches, calling him “Trump’s hand-picked candidate.”
“If we let Moreno and Trump outraise and outspend us, we could lose this race and our Senate majority,” the email states.
“Ohioans will know that whoever emerges from this primary won’t fight for them or the issues that matter most to them,” Ohio Democratic Party spokesperson Katie Smith told The Hill.
Ohio-based Republican strategists said the race for the nomination is not over, and the outcome will depend on how they’re campaigning to Ohioans.
Weaver said Moreno needs to effectively communicate Trump’s endorsement to voters because he cannot presume that they automatically are aware of that. A pop-up showing that Trump endorsed Moreno and called him the “MAGA fighter that we need” in the Senate comes up immediately when a user accesses Moreno’s website.
Strategists said LaRose and Dolan will likely continue going on offense after Moreno’s front-runner status and seek to release effective opposition research.
Dolan hammered Moreno at the first primary debate on Monday over his record as a car dealership owner. He pointed to lawsuits that had been filed against Moreno on allegations that he did not pay employees proper overtime.
Moreno was also sanctioned by a judge for destroying records that listed who worked overtime at the dealership he owned. A Columbus-based NBC affiliate reported that Moreno said in a deposition that he did not keep the documents he had after he sold the dealership and shredded the documents in 2020.
Moreno was found liable in one wage theft lawsuit and ordered to pay more than $400,000 and settled more than a dozen lawsuits related to alleged wage theft less than a year before launching his campaign.
Dolan also accused LaRose and Moreno of deleting posts critical of Trump and argued he is the “only one” who has enacted Trump’s policies.
“Bernie has been caught shredding court documents, deleting his leftist tweets and hiding legal settlements, all in an effort to obscure the fact he’s an ideological shapeshifter prone to blaming others for his own bad judgment,” Dolan strategist Chris Maloney told The Hill. “This is exactly why surveys have shown he is the least electable candidate against Sherrod Brown.”
Moreno campaign spokesperson Conor McGuinness pointed to a 2019 Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court decision that affirmed that retail salespeople paid on commission must still be able to receive overtime pay. He argued that it changed the way a law, which required employers to pay salespeople overtime if they work more than 40 hours weekly, was interpreted retroactively.
The Massachusetts Department of Labor had issued a regulation in 2015 that employees’ commission does not count toward receiving overtime pay.
McGuinness said using “a retroactive rule change from a liberal court to try to insinuate wrongdoing shows a gross misunderstanding” of the court’s decision.
“As has been reported previously, Bernie provided all relevant data to the court,” he said. “Any documents that were not preserved were based on data provided to the court and had nothing to do with the scope of the case. It is pathetic to watch Bernie’s opponents use leftist talking points to try and save their failing campaigns.”
The Hill has reached out to LaRose’s campaign for comment.
Polling conducted in the fall seemed to show Moreno as the weakest in a matchup against Brown, trailing him by a larger margin than LaRose and Dolan. An Emerson College poll in November had Dolan down by 3 percentage points, LaRose down by 5 points and Moreno down by 10 points.
A longtime GOP operative said they believe the reason for Moreno being down is more attributable to his lower name recognition, and his numbers would improve if he became the nominee.
“At the end of the day, if he wins the Republican nomination, by the time Election Day rolls around, he’ll have 100 percent name recognition,” the operative said.
The race has already seen a significant influx of money because Moreno and Dolan are both considerably wealthy. Dolan is a member of the family that owns the Cleveland Guardians and had raised more than $8.7 million through the third quarter of 2023 to Moreno’s $6.4 million and LaRose’s $1 million.
The operative said Moreno has run a strong campaign so far using his own money and bringing in outside funding while also gathering endorsements from numerous county Republican parties.
Each candidate at times during the Monday debate attacked each other over alleged hypocrisy, including when it came to who is the most supportive of Trump.
“If you’re not genuine, voters will see through it, and they’ll punish you for it,” the operative said. “So I keep trying to tell candidates that will listen, you have to be true to yourself, you have to be genuine because voters will tell pretty quickly and will recognize if you’re being disingenuous.”
Updated at 4:02 pm.