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In Key Ohio Senate Primary, Republicans Go with Trump Again

Dear Readers: This is our only planned issue of the Crystal Ball this week; we’ll be back next week. Below, we take a look at the ultimately not-close Ohio Republican Senate primary and other key results from the down-ballot primaries there and in Illinois.

— The Editors


— Both Donald Trump and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) got their man in the Ohio GOP Senate primary on Tuesday night, as businessman Bernie Moreno (R) blew open what polls, in aggregate, suggested was a close race. A major Democratic outside spending group connected to Schumer effectively spent on Moreno’s behalf, continuing a common Democratic strategy of spending in the other party’s primary.

— The jury’s out on how good (or bad) Moreno will be as a general election challenger to Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH), but in a straight-ticket era, the Trump-backed Moreno need only consolidate the Trump vote in a state very likely to vote Republican for president.

— The IL-12 Republican primary, in which Rep. Mike Bost was pushed by former state Sen. Darren Bailey, stood out as the most interesting of an otherwise fairly lopsided slate of U.S. House primaries.

Moreno sizzles, Dolan fizzles

Right before the 2022 Ohio Senate primary, we asked a trusted source about rumblings that state Sen. Matt Dolan (R) was making a late charge in that race. This person’s response to the Dolan hype: “Just wishful thinking on part of moderate Rs in media.” Two years later, and the quote still applies.

Auto dealer Bernie Moreno (R) won a comfortable victory in the Ohio Republican Senate primary on Tuesday night, winning 51%-33% over Dolan, with Secretary of State Frank LaRose (R) finishing well back at 17%. Moreno, backed by Donald Trump, follows the path taken two years ago by now-Sen. J.D. Vance (R), who, like Moreno, was a Trump-endorsed candidate without previous officeholding experience who beat out a field that included some more experienced pols to get the Ohio GOP Senate nomination. Vance faced now-former Rep. Tim Ryan (D, OH-13), a longtime fixture in Congress, in the general election; Moreno advances to face Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH), who is going for a fourth term in the Senate and was a longtime fixture in Ohio politics even before entering the Senate.

In the days leading up to the primary, Dolan dominated the airwaves, as he and his allies outspent Moreno and his allies by nearly 2-to-1 in the final week of the campaign, according to analysis from AdImpact. A late, negative story also emerged about Moreno—an Associated Press report that someone created a profile on an adult website in 2008 under his email address and claimed to be searching for “young guys to have fun with while traveling.” A former intern for Moreno took responsibility for creating the account, but it was a bizarre, late-breaking story. Late polls told an inconsistent story, with Moreno and Dolan exchanging leads.

What may have been more meaningful to the outcome was a late rally by Donald Trump and campaign appearances on Moreno’s behalf by figures from the expanded MAGAverse, like Arizona Senate candidate Kari Lake and Vance himself, an early Moreno backer. Or it may have also been that Moreno always had it in the bag: Here was a race where just knowing one detail—Trump had backed Moreno—likely was the only detail that needed to be known.

One dynamic of Donald Trump’s primary performance has been an underperformance in primary polls (Politico’s Steve Shepard recently wrote about this dynamic and warned about overstating its meaning for the fall campaign). However, in this race, a Trump-endorsed candidate overperformed his polls, and by more than Vance did himself in 2022 (Vance had emerged as a small but clear polling leader back then, which was not necessarily the case for Moreno when taking all the polls into account).

Back in 2022, Dolan got a smaller share of the vote—23% in a field with five major candidates—but won the state’s two biggest counties, Franklin (Columbus) and Cuyahoga (Cleveland), along with Geauga, a Cuyahoga satellite. This time, Dolan did not even win a single county as Moreno swept everything.

Map 1 breaks down the strength of all three Republicans by county.

Map 1: 2024 Ohio Senate primary

Moreno’s best counties, not too surprisingly, were the pair of Mahoning and Trumbull. Both were double-digit Barack Obama counties that backed Trump in 2020—when Brown was last up, in 2018, he carried the pair 59%-41%, so he will probably want to limit his slippage here in the general election. Geauga, just east of Cleveland, was Dolan’s best county in 2022. This year, Geauga was again his strongest, although, just speaking to how Moreno dominated the map, it was the only county where he cleared 40% of the vote. LaRose, who took less than 17% statewide, fell under 20% in a clear majority of counties. As a sitting statewide officeholder, La Rose arguably started the race as the favorite but became an afterthought as Moreno and Dolan dominated the television ad war. Tellingly, LaRose’s 10 best counties were all small places in the Appalachian southeast covered by West Virginia media markets—places perhaps neglected by the big TV spending focused on the state’s bigger, Ohio-centric markets (one sometimes sees quirky results in counties covered by non-major and/or out-of-state media markets, in Ohio and elsewhere).

National Democrats telegraphed who they wanted to run against—Moreno—when news broke last week that an appendage of Senate Majority PAC, a major outside group connected to Senate Democratic leadership, was effectively advertising on Moreno’s behalf. This is a tactic Democrats have embraced in recent years, playing in Republican primaries to elevate Trumpier candidates who they believe are easier to beat in a general election. (We did see a Republican version of this recently in the North Carolina state attorney general Democratic primary, although the candidate Republicans backed did not end up winning as Rep. Jeff Jackson secured the nomination comfortably).

Democrats are surely hoping that Moreno represents a continuation of the terrible Senate candidates Republicans produced in so many key races in 2022. And it is true that Moreno has never faced a test like this—he ran in the 2022 contest but dropped out well before the election—and could fall on his face, just like Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania, Herschel Walker in Georgia, Donald Bolduc in New Hampshire, and Blake Masters in Arizona. That said, it’s not obvious that he will, and it may not be all that much of a lift to just get Trump voters to also back the Trump-endorsed Senate Republican candidate in a state that is likely to vote for Trump by high-single or maybe even double digits.

In terms of candidate quality, we’d simply say that Moreno has plenty to prove but that he also may end up being fine—although with any candidate who is relatively new to politics, there’s always the possibility that new, damaging stories emerge down the line (like the aforementioned AP story on the adult site, although we doubt that story on its own is all that meaningful).

But we could see why Senate Democrats preferred running against him, instead of Dolan, who is more comparable to the old-fashioned Republicans who backed him, current term-limited Gov. Mike DeWine (R-OH) and former Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH). Back in 2016, Portman won a smashing reelection victory, beating former Gov. Ted Strickland (D-OH) by a 58%-37% spread while Trump beat Hillary Clinton 51%-43%, meaning that there were a fair number of Portman-Clinton voters.

Eight years later, the question about this key Senate race is how many Trump-Brown voters there are. Dolan may have been able to have taken MAGA Republicans for granted and blocked Brown from generating sufficient crossover in the suburbs, although Brown may have also outflanked Dolan on economic populism and had an easier time recapturing lapsed Trump Democrats, particularly in eastern Ohio. But we’ll never know—it’s on Moreno now to stay as close to Trump in the polls as possible and prevent the big crossover that Brown needs to survive. Realistically, Democrats would need a big, surprising break elsewhere in the country to hold the Senate majority without hanging onto Ohio.

It is likely too early to put much stock into polls testing Brown against his potential Republican rivals, but Dolan did perform better than Moreno and LaRose in head-to-head matchups with Brown.

In an average of four nonpartisan polls released since the start of March that polled the primary and the potential general election matchups, Brown led Dolan by 2 points on average, while he led Moreno by 6.5 and LaRose by 7.5, respectively. It may be that the combination of Dolan both having a healthy presence on paid media and not being endorsed by Donald Trump gave him a bit more crossover appeal (of course, these polls also ended up underestimating Moreno in the primary). In these same four polls, Trump led President Biden in the presidential horse race by an average of roughly 10 points (that’s a little bit better than Trump’s 8-point margins in 2016 and 2020). The danger for Brown, of course, is that in this era where ticket-splitting is rarer than it used to be, the presidential and Senate margins could very well get closer to each other over time.

In other down-ballot primary action in Ohio (and Illinois) last night:

— National Republicans got their preferred challenger to Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D, OH-9) in a narrowly Trump-won Toledo-based district, as state Rep. Derek Merrin (R) won the nomination with some help from outside GOP spending group Congressional Leadership Fund. We still give Kaptur a narrow edge in the race, but national Republicans will be much more involved after J.R. Majewski (R) ran a very poor race in 2022 (Majewski dropped out of this year’s race a few weeks ago).

— In the Toss-up OH-13, former state Sen. Kevin Coughlin (R) easily defeated Hudson City Councilman Chris Banweg (R), who Vance supported. Coughlin will face Rep. Emilia Sykes (D, OH-13) in this narrow Biden district; here’s a race where a GOP primary electorate went with the candidate with the longer electoral track record.

— In a Safe Republican open seat, eastern Ohio’s OH-6, state Sen. Michael Rulli (R) won primaries for both a regular and special election. Rulli helped confirm the Youngstown area’s movement to the GOP when, two years after Trump’s 2016 breakthrough in the ancestrally Democratic region, he defeated one-time U.S. Rep. John Boccieri (D) to initially win a state Senate seat.

— In Chicagoland, veteran Rep. Danny Davis (D) held on with surprising ease in the Black-plurality 7th District. Though Illinois has no runoffs, at least not for federal races, Davis would have won outright even if it did—he took 53% in a multi-candidate field. Some previous patterns that we highlighted last week took hold again. For instance, Davis took about two-thirds of the vote in wards 16 and 17 (which make up the southern end of the district and are nearly all Black by composition) while he took just 23% in ward 42, which includes some wealthy precincts near The Loop.

— In downstate Illinois, a poll from earlier this month showing Rep. Mike Bost (R, IL-12) leading challenger Darren Bailey (R) by just single-digits proved to have some predictive value: Bost beat Bailey just 51.4%-48.6%. Though Bost was the Trump-endorsed candidate, Bailey could be called the more anti-establishment option. Still, the major fault line in this primary was not ideological but geographical: although he got a free ride in 2022, Bost was very nearly a delayed victim of redistricting. For 2022, the 12th District moved eastward to take in the turf that Bailey represented in the state Senate (that year, he was the GOP’s losing nominee for governor). The 11 counties that Bost represented before redistricting would have given him, collectively, slightly better than a 70%-30% margin while the rest of the district broke to Bailey 64%-36%.

— In IL-17, Joe McGraw, a former judge who was the favorite of some national Republicans, got the GOP nod by about 2-to-1 over a lesser-funded Republican. Held by first-term Rep. Eric Sorensen (D), the 17th is the sole Illinois district that we currently place in the Leans or Toss-up column (it’s Leans Democratic). Redistricting transformed this sprawling western district from a narrow Trump-won seat into one that Biden would have carried by 8 points.

— We and others got a chuckle out of a concession email inadvertently sent by the campaign of Derek Myers, one of 11 Republican candidates running for the open and safely Republican OH-2 in southern Ohio, in advance of polls closing (Myers’s team later released a good-natured follow-up about the mistake). The early concession was prophetic, as Myers finished in last place with just 1.5% of the vote. The primary winner was businessman David Taylor (R), who got about 25%.