VANDALIA, OHIO - MARCH 16: Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump greets Ohio Republican candidate for US Senate Bernie Moreno during a rally at the Dayton International Airport on March 16, 2024 in Vandalia, Ohio. The rally was hosted by the Buckeye Values PAC. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

BY:  Ohio Capital Journal

Tuesday night went about as well as Ohio’s Republican U.S. Senate nominee Bernie Moreno could’ve dreamed. Despite a three-person race, Moreno was able to secure a majority of GOP voters and won in all 88 of Ohio’s counties. And it’s a victory that cements former President’s Donald Trump’s influence in the state. In two elections in a row, Trump’s favored candidates have been able to fend off challengers from the party’s establishment conservative wings.


But the primary also offered an interesting test: with Trump’s own nomination in the bag, would his backing still drive MAGA voters to the polls?

The answer was a qualified yes. Tuesday’s primary election brought out 22% of registered voters. That’s far lower than 2016’s still-hotly contested presidential primary in Ohio, but it falls right between the two most recent primaries in 2020 and 2022. When it comes the raw figures, GOP voters cast a nearly identical number of ballots as they did in 2022 and about 200,000 more than they did in 2020.

“I think most experts were expecting a drop off,” University of Akron political scientist David Cohen said. “I think the (Matt) Dolan and (Frank) LaRose campaigns were hoping for a drop off, but obviously that didn’t happen.”

“The numbers for Moreno are really kind of surprising,” he added, calling it “a clean sweep.”

“Most people including myself were expecting a Moreno win, but I wasn’t expecting (a margin of) almost 18% — that’s crazy. A three-person race where he wins a majority of the Republican vote? That is really unexpected,” Cohen said.

Meanwhile, political scientist David Niven from the University of Cincinnati turned the question of turnout back on the Democrats.

“The lowest turnout in the state was Hamilton County. The second lowest turnout in the state was Franklin County,” Niven said. “Democrats obviously didn’t have a competitive Senate race, but oh my — I mean, the 87 and 88th counties for turnout were two of the absolute lynchpins of any kind of Democratic path to success.”

Niven downplayed the overall turnout figures, though, as reflecting “an overall dearth of energy.” Even if it didn’t crater, he said, matching an off-cycle primary and a by-then uncontested presidential primary, during a pandemic no less, isn’t that high a bar.

Still, Niven said, “It is really notable that more than twice as many Republicans showed up as Democrats. Even with a competitive Senate primary, that is a major red flag for Democrats.”

Trump effect

Former president Donald Trump cast a long shadow over Ohio’s GOP Senate primary. While Moreno and Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose jockeyed for his endorsement, state Sen. Matt Dolan, R-Chagrin Falls, argued his legislative record best mirrored Trump’s platform. All three built their pitch to voters around issues like immigration and border enforcement that Trump has made the centerpiece of his campaign.

But nowhere was Trump’s influence more apparent than in his last-minute rally in Dayton.

“It sure looks like Donald Trump was really able to motivate his base to vote yesterday,” Cohen said.

“I just think that the results yesterday show that the Ohio Republican Party is now Trump’s party,” Cohen continued, “the Republican base in Ohio is Trump’s base, and there doesn’t really seem to be any going back.”

He argued that’s not necessarily a recipe for long-term success but it’s still pretty hard to ignore.

As Election Day drew nearer, polls had indicated the race was close and Dolan might even have an advantage. More establishment-leaning GOP figures like Gov. Mike DeWine former U.S. Sen. Rob Portman, broke for Dolan before Trump announced his visit.

“I don’t think it would be a shock to anybody to realize that the country club, polite-mannered (Republican) party in Ohio is no more,” Niven said. “I do think it’s notable that Portman and DeWine thought they could ride in and save Dolan. I do think that’s the very last gasp of that sort of thing in Ohio politics —their day has passed.”

Wednesday, DeWine said he would support Moreno and Trump in the general election.

Niven as well pointed to the rally as an important factor in Moreno’s success. It created a “saturation point,” he said, reminding Ohioans who’d begun tuning out election ads that Moreno is Trump’s pick.

“If every Republican in Ohio knows who the endorsed candidate is,” he explained, “Bernie Moreno wins the primary, and the rally went a long way toward that.”

One mission

In the final weeks of the primary campaign the attacks grew personal and bitter. It was clear during his victory speech that Moreno was still smarting, but he brushed off the campaign season hostility.

“One of the things that we do as Republicans is we have spirited debates,” Moreno said, “Now maybe it’s like a little too spirited, could’ve been a little less spirited, right? But we have spirited debates and that’s okay.”

“What we have to do now is, as a fully united party, understand we have one mission which is to get rid of Sherrod Brown,” Moreno said.


In a social media post conceding the race, LaRose struck a similar note, saying, “The family disagreements that define partisan primaries are behind us.”

Moreno could get a boost from having Donald Trump at the top of the ticket. The former president has twice won Ohio by eight points. But that track record could cut the other way, too. A cash-strapped Trump campaign may focus its efforts on states that are in play rather than a state it’s likely to win.

Despite recent polling that shows Trump with an even bigger advantage, Cohen predicted the race will tighten before November. Given an improving economy and Republicans taking the losing side on a 2023 reproductive rights ballot measure, he doubts Trump will be able to match his previous showings in the state. Cohen also pointed to former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley collecting 14% of Ohio’s Republican presidential votes despite exiting the race about two weeks before the election.

Ohio’s recent history of split-ticket could also present an opening for Brown even if Trump carries the state. Brown benefitted from voters backing candidates from both parties in 2018, but Niven noted the state has shifted to the right in the past six years.

“The bottom line here is if Sherrod Brown’s campaign can make this a choice between two people, he can still win this thing,” Niven said. “If this campaign boils down to a choice between two parties, he cannot win this thing, the gulf is too large.”

“So, if it’s a question of people, I think the Brown campaign looks at this as an ideal outcome,” he added. “If it’s a question of party, he’s swimming against a tide that’s just getting bigger and stronger.”

Follow OCJ Reporter Nick Evans on Twitter.

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.

Ohio Capital Journal is part of States Newsroom, the nation’s largest state-focused nonprofit news organization.


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