U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown’s GOP challengers: familiar faces offering new messages

State Sen. Matt Dolan and Bernie Moreno ran for U.S. Senate unsuccessfully last year. This time around they’re trying to appeal to different kinds of voters.

By: - June 23, 2023 5:00 am

Republican U.S. Senate candidates Bernie Moreno (left) at the 2022 Mount Vernon March for Life, and Sen. Matt Dolan, R-Chagrin Falls, debating on the Senate floor. (photos by Graham Stokes)

The primary election may be eight months away, but that hasn’t stopped the Republicans who want to challenge U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-OH, from making their pitch to voters. Those candidates, State Sen. Matt Dolan, R-Chagrin Falls, and entrepreneur Bernie Moreno, both threw their hat in the ring during last year’s Senate race, too. But this time around they’re trying out notably different messages.

When the dust settled in last year’s primary election, Dolan had a surprisingly close third, behind eventual winner U.S. Sen. J.D. Vance, R-OH, and Josh Mandel. Both made hardline border and immigration policies a centerpiece of their campaign.

Moreno, meanwhile, bowed out early after it became clear he wasn’t likely to get Donald Trump’s endorsement. The former president’s backing was crucial to Vance’s success, and Vance’s quick endorsement of Moreno may hint that the Trump lane is Moreno’s to lose.

Dolan and the border

Tuesday, Dolan released his first statewide ad of the campaign. The minute long video is a notable departure from his messaging last year. For instance, he departed Ohio to make it.

“I’m at our southern border today because Sherrod Brown is dead wrong,” Dolan says on a dirt road next to fence studded with razor wire.

“From violent crime to sex trafficking and deadly fentanyl,” Dolan continued, “open borders are a direct threat to Ohio families.”

Dolan’s campaign in 2022 didn’t ignore national issues. In one ad he described competition with China as a new “cold war,” and in another he argued a pencil tip’s worth of fentanyl can kill. In a dramatic flourish, he broke the pencil and said, “without a border, we have no country.”

But Dolan succeeded largely by focusing on how those broader issues affect Ohioans. He also took a comparatively toned-down rhetorical approach. How does the U.S. fight that cold war with China? “By bringing jobs back our jobs,” was Dolan’s vague prescription. The answer to border policy? Dolan pitched more border patrol and finishing the wall.

Around the same time, Vance was looking directly into the camera and asking in disbelief “are you a racist?” His ad went on to accuse “the media” of “call(ing) us racists for wanting to build Trump’s wall.” It also argued “Joe Biden’s open border is killing Ohioans with more illegal drugs and more Democrat voters pouring into this country.”

Dolan seems to have taken a page out of Vance’s harsher immigration playbook. On the ’22 campaign trail, Vance proposed a border strategy that included labeling cartels terrorist organizations. In his latest ad, Dolan touts his vote on a 2019 resolution to that effect.

“In the state Senate,” he said, “I voted to designate the cartels as terrorist organizations. As your next U.S. Senator I’ll get tough on illegal immigration and stop the Mexican drug cartels from killing our kids.”

Such a designation would have limited impact, however, Brookings Institute senior fellow Vanda Felbab-Brown explained last year. As a threat, she explained, it might be a useful bargaining tool. But in practice, it would likely curtail aid efforts meant to steer people away from dependence on cartels.

Moreno the outsider

The video Bernie Moreno is using to launch this year’s campaign could just as easily launch a Wonder Years-style sitcom based on his life. It opens with a fanfare of horns and a 70s funk groove. A young Bernie Moreno runs into the frame, picks up a bright red, banana seat Schwinn and rides off down the street — the American flag taped to the rear fender flapping in the wind.

Admittedly, in some ways, it’s 2022 all over again, just with punchy bass instead of dramatic strings.

“President Trump put us on a path to prosperity,” adult Moreno narrates, “but today, China is buying our land, drugs pour through our borders while our tax dollars flow to foreign countries and our jobs stream overseas.”

But with those preliminaries stated, Moreno changes course and focuses on a positive message.

“I loved cars,” he says as a teenage Moreno writes a letter to then-CEO of GM Roger Smith about ideas for fixing the company. He goes on to describe how “industry insiders” tried to keep him from opening his first car dealership.

“I spent every cent I had and made it happen,” Moreno says. “Fifteen years later, I owned fifteen dealerships and had created thousands of Ohio jobs.”

Overall, it’s a far cry from his posture in 2022. If his message today is built around what he loves, that campaign emphasized what he hates. The text superimposed on one ad introduced him as a “legal immigrant.” His narration repeatedly reduced any other migrants to “illegals.”

“Joe Biden paid people to sit at home watching Netflix,” he says as a guy on a couch dangles a slice of pizza above his mouth and flips through channels.

“Handouts instead of hard work,” he goes on, “I remember when America thought more like us and less like them.”

The shift in tone, toward a positive message, may help Moreno appeal to centrist Republicans. Although he still praises Donald Trump and treats any positive statements from him like a badge of honor, Moreno’s isn’t attempting to channel the former president as he did in 2022.

Like Dolan, Moreno seems to have taken some notes on Vance’s campaign. He makes the same play for the center by blaming “corrupt and cowardly Insider politicians from both parties.” But the most noticeable comparison is Moreno’s emphasis on his “outsider” status. Like Vance, he attempts to make that lack of experience an asset.

“I’m not a career politician,” Moreno says. “I’ve never held office I’m doing this because I firmly believe that career politicians have put us in the ditch, and we need outsiders to fix this country.”

COLUMBUS, OH — NOVEMBER 04: U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown speaks to a supporter at a Democratic Party campaign event for Franklin County voters featuring Democratic gubernatorial nominee Nan Whaley, Senator Brown and U.S. Rep. Joyce Beatty (OH-03), November 4, 2022, at Gemüt Biergarten in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Graham Stokes for Ohio Capital Journal)

Around the bend

As both men reintroduce themselves to voters they’re trying shore up rhetorical territory where they may be vulnerable.

Dolan spent 2022 studiously avoiding Donald Trump. Now he’s building his campaign on the former president’s biggest political issue. Dolan is also adopting the sort of stance on immigration that the candidates who beat him favored.

Moreno’s 2022 campaign stressed his support for Trump and the similarities between the two men. Moreno is an entrepreneur, a salesman even, and he happens to be a hardliner on immigration — hint, hint. But now, Moreno is focusing on his own story and trying to do more than lock in the former president’s voters. There’s no hint of Moreno abandoning Trump, but neither is his current pitch dependent on him.

As they look for their lane, Secretary of State Frank LaRose is mulling a run of his own. Whoever winds up winning the nomination next March, they’ll face a senator with a formidable track record. Even if Republicans have dominated recent elections in the state, taking on an incumbent is always a tall order. For their part, Ohio Democrats dismiss all the GOP jockeying.

“Ohio Republicans’ ‘family fight’ is already one of the messiest, most bruising primaries in the country.” Ohio Democratic Party spokesperson Reeves Oyster said in a statement. “With candidates wasting no time attacking one another, it’s clear whoever emerges from this primary will be bruised, battered and out of touch with Ohioans.”

Follow OCJ Reporter Nick Evans on Twitter.


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Nick Evans
Nick Evans

Nick Evans has spent the past seven years reporting for NPR member stations in Florida and Ohio. He got his start in Tallahassee, covering issues like redistricting, same sex marriage and medical marijuana. Since arriving in Columbus in 2018, he has covered everything from city council to football. His work on Ohio politics and local policing have been featured numerous times on NPR.