April 23rd, 2024

Trump-backed Cleveland businessman Bernie Moreno beats two rivals to win Ohio’s GOP Senate primary

By Julie Carr Smyth, The Associated Press on March 19, 2024.

FILE - U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio, is interviewed, Dec. 9, 2022, in Toledo, Ohio. Republicans are watching two hot-button federal races in Ohio on Tuesday, March 19, 2024, that could affect their chances for potentially pivotal pickups this fall. One is a GOP match-up to face Kaptur in northwest Ohio, who is considered among the year's most vulnerable Democrats. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio, File)

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) – Cleveland businessman Bernie Moreno won Ohio’s Republican Senate primary on Tuesday, just days after former President Donald Trump visited the state to boost his endorsed candidate in a three-way race that remained competitive to the end.

Moreno prevailed after a contentious and expensive fight against Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose and Cleveland-area state Sen. Matt Dolan, whose relentless attacks may yet damage him headed into this fall. That’s when he’ll face off against three-term Democratic U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, a staple of Ohio politics who’s among the year’s most vulnerable Democrats.

The general election fight is expected to be at least as fierce in a state that has trended Republican in recent years. With Democrats holding a tenuous 51-49 voting majority in the Senate but defending more seats than Republicans, Brown’s seat is expected to be a top GOP target. He is the lone Democrat holding a non-judicial statewide office in Ohio, a state that has moved steadily to the right during the Trump era.

In a move that drew bipartisan rebukes, Senate Majority PAC, an independent group aligned with Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, spent $2.7 million to elevate Moreno’s primary bid, with the idea that he would be the weakest against Brown this fall.

Brown is expected to make abortion rights a cornerstone of his campaign. In the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s 2022 decision overturning the constitutional right to an abortion, Ohioans strongly supported a state constitutional amendment last year to protect access to the procedure.

Moreno, a former luxury car dealer and blockchain entrepreneur, weathered controversy late in the campaign.

The Associated Press reported last week that in 2008, someone with access to Moreno’s work email account created a profile on an adult website seeking “Men for 1-on-1 sex.” The AP could not definitively confirm that it was created by Moreno himself. Moreno’s lawyer said a former intern created the account and provided a statement from the intern, Dan Ricci, who said he created the account as “part of a juvenile prank.”

Questions about the profile have circulated in GOP circles for the past month, sparking frustration among senior Republican operatives about Moreno’s potential vulnerability in a general election, according to seven people who are directly familiar with conversations about how to address the matter. They requested anonymity to avoid running afoul of Trump and his allies.

Moreno, a native of Bogota, Colombia, who partially funded his own campaign, rode to victory after casting himself as a political outsider, who – like Trump – would go to Washington to shake things up. He and allied political action committees pilloried Dolan and LaRose as “career politicians.” He built his fortune in Cleveland in luxury auto sales and blockchain technology.

As LaRose struggled for a lane after failing to win Trump’s endorsement, Dolan worked to consolidate the party’s non-Trump faction in his corner in the runup to Election Day. He was helped in that effort with endorsements from Gov. Mike DeWine and former U.S. Sen. Rob Portman, two of Ohio’s most prominent establishment Republicans.

LaRose, a former state senator and Green Beret elected twice statewide, raised more in grassroots donations of $200 or less than either of his rivals. He loaned himself $250,000, compared to $4.2 million Moreno loaned his own campaign and a whopping $9 million Dolan loaned to his.

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; Dolan finished third. Vance went on to win the general election that year against Democratic U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan.

Republicans are also watching a GOP matchup in the 9th Congressional District held by Rep. Marcy Kaptur, the longest-serving woman in Congress.

Trump issued a last-minute endorsement of state Rep. Derek Merrin on Monday in the Toledo-area congressional primary, the latest twist for a months-long roller coaster ride of a primary that’s included swift entries and exits, candidate gaffes and bouncing endorsements. At one point, Vance, House Speaker Mike Johnson and Rep. Jim Jordan, a vocal Trump ally, were aligned with three competing campaigns.

Things settled down when Trump-aligned candidate J.R. Majewski, who lost badly to Kaptur in 2022, abruptly left the race earlier this month amid pushback for remarks he made disparaging Special Olympics athletes.

That left three candidates in the race: Merrin, backed by Johnson – and, as of Monday, Trump; former state Rep. Craig Riedel, backed by Jordan; and former Napoleon Mayor Steve Lankenau. Trump’s endorsement came as Riedel was airing searing attack ads against Merrin, referencing the legislator’s ties to convicted former Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder.

Merrin, 37, is a term-limited four-term state representative who led an intraparty rebellion in the Ohio House last year after losing a bitter battle for speaker. He joined the congressional race on the filing deadline after audio that surfaced of Riedel criticizing Trump began raising concerns inside the party about Riedel’s electability.

Riedel, 57, was among candidates who lost the nomination to Majewski in 2022. He raised more than $1.1 million headed into primary day, the highest of any candidate and some 10 times more than Merrin. But Merrin has benefited from help from national Republicans, with the Congressional Leadership Fund spending more than $750,000 on his behalf.


Associated Press writer Brian Slodysko in Washington contributed to this report.

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