Trump could face a rare defeat in the chaotic Ohio GOP Senate primary by someone he calls the 'next Mitt Romney'

  • There's a contentious Senate primary in Ohio between a traditional Republican and a Trump loyalist.

  • Trump's preferred candidate — Bernie Moreno — could lose. The primary is on Tuesday.

  • The former president flew to Ohio on Saturday to boost Moreno and avert an embarrassing setback.

In recent days, former President Donald Trump has found himself locked in a proxy showdown with establishment GOP figures in Ohio.

He might lose.

Trump flew into Dayton on Saturday afternoon for a last-minute rally for Bernie Moreno, a former car dealership owner who's locked in a contentious primary for US Senate against state Sen. Matt Dolan, a more traditional Republican backed by Gov. Mike DeWine and former Sen. Rob Portman.

Some recent polls have even shown Dolan — who has distanced himself from Trump's rhetoric and supports US aid to Ukraine — in the lead. That's prompted an 11th-hour push from Trump and his allies to brand Dolan as a "RINO," or "Republican in Name Only."

"He's trying to become the next Mitt Romney," Trump told rally attendees on Saturday, referring to the Utah senator who's long been a critic of the former president. "I think Mitt Romney is his hero."

DeWine, meanwhile, called Moreno the "weakest candidate" in the primary after a Democratic super PAC began spending more than $3.1 million on TV and digital ads boosting Moreno among GOP primary voters, an unusually high proportion of whom remain undecided.

It's the latest example of Democrats meddling in primaries to try to elevate the candidate they believe will be the easiest to defeat in the general election. Whoever prevails in Tuesday's primary will face Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown in a race that could determine control of the US Senate.

Yet the chaotic three-way race — in which Moreno, Dolan, and Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose have lobbed insults at one another for months — has also raised the possibility that whoever emerges from the primary will be significantly weakened in the general election.

A burgeoning scandal and a potential rare defeat for Trump

Trump's appearance came just days after the Associated Press reported that Moreno's work email was linked to a short-lived profile that sought "Men for 1-on-1 sex" on an adult dating website in 2008. Moreno's campaign has blamed the incident on a prank by an intern and suggested that Dolan's campaign planted the story.

It remains unclear what impact, if any, the story will have on the primary. Moreno made no mention of it in his remarks at the rally, and several voters who spoke with Business Insider said they were unaware of it. Other speakers only made allusions to the controversy as they defended Moreno.

"They lie about people who are fighters," said Gov. Kristi Noem of South Dakota, who traveled to Ohio to campaign for Moreno as she seemingly auditions to be Trump's vice presidential pick. "Look at what they've done, and how they lied about Bernie… this last week."

Ohio State Sen. Matt Dolan at an event in Salem, Ohio on March 15, 2024.
Ohio State Sen. Matt Dolan at an event in Salem, Ohio on March 15, 2024.Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call via Getty Images

The primary is ending largely as a two-man race between Moreno and Dolan, with LaRose's political standing having gradually eroded in part due to his association with a failed campaign in August to make it harder to amend the state constitution. On Saturday, Trump didn't even mention LaRose.

Yet when it comes to contentious primaries, Ohio is largely the exception to the rule.

After a 2022 midterm cycle that included a retribution campaign against several House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump after January 6, this cycle has seen the former president consolidating his control over the party, even as he's faced his own primary challengers.

That's meant working more hand-in-glove with figures like Sen. Steve Daines of Montana, who's tasked with reclaiming the Senate majority as chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) and has been eager to avoid a repeat of 2022, when Republicans were saddled with unpopular Trump-backed nominees and failed to retake the Senate.

In Montana and Michigan, Trump has backed candidates recruited by the NRSC but had few ties to the former president or his political orbit. On the other hand, Senate Republicans have largely embraced Trump acolyte Kari Lake, despite her losing — and refusing to concede — the 2022 Arizona gubernatorial race.

Yet the NRSC opted against picking a candidate in Ohio, believing that any of the three candidates running could defeat Brown in November.

The result is a campaign that's unusually emblematic of the divisions that have beset the Republican Party since Trump's rise, even as he's remade the party in his image.

'His political style? It's not me'

While Dolan is by no means a moderate on policy matters, Dolan differs from most of the contemporary MAGA base on two major issues — he supports continued US aid to Ukraine, and he has forcefully said in the past that Trump lied about the 2020 election. During the most recent debate, Dolan affirmed his support for the former president's policies and said he supports Trump as the nominee, but he went out of his way to distance himself stylistically.

"Look, his personality? It's not me," said Dolan. "His political style? It's not me."

Dolan is also a partial owner of the Cleveland Guardians and comes from a wealthy family, allowing him to contribute millions of dollars to his own campaign. On Tuesday, Dolan poured in another $1 million.

"My attitude is: anybody that changes the name of the Cleveland Indians to the Cleveland Guardians should not be a senator," Trump said of Dolan at the rally, referring to the 2021 name change.

Moreno has taken the exact opposite approach, hugging Trump as tightly as possible, going out of his way to defend his character, and pitching himself as a loyal vote for Trump in the Senate.

The former president endorsed Moreno — who also ran for Senate in 2022 before dropping out and endorsing now-Sen. JD Vance — in December after Vance and a coterie of other MAGA-aligned figures coalesced behind him.

Trump and Moreno on stage at the rally near Dayton, OH on March 16, 2024.
Trump and Moreno on stage at the rally near Dayton, OH on March 16, 2024.Scott Olson/Getty Images

On Saturday, speakers at the rally had relatively little to say about Moreno himself, beyond passing mentions of his business career and the fact that Trump has endorsed him.

"President Trump wants Bernie," said Noem, adding that "should be enough reason" for rally attendees to convince their friends to vote for Moreno.

"You're gonna want President Trump in Ohio a lot," Noem later said. "He's gonna come here a lot if you get Bernie to be the victor on Tuesday."

Ultimately, Trump and his allies appear to be betting that the last-minute show of force will convince Trump-friendly undecided GOP voters to pull the lever for Moreno.

"I know Trump supports Moreno, so that's probably who I'll vote for," Kimberly Curtis, a 58-year-old resident of Troy, Ohio told Business Insider at the rally. "I don't really pay that close attention to the Senate stuff, it's more the presidential stuff."

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