Ohio’s GOP Primary Results Prove Biden Is Right To Bypass the State

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If you tuned into a C-SPAN feed of the Ohio Senate primary of late, you’d think you stumbled down the archival rabbit hole. All of the legends had returned, but they looked more like slightly warped wax-museum iterations of the more dynamic originals.

There was former former Sen. Rob Portman, alongside Gov. Mike DeWine. The pair has been steady fixtures in Ohio politics for decades, pillars of the state’s Republican firmament, and they were practically pleading with the state’s GOP base to ignore Donald Trump’s wishes and back the candidate they viewed as having a shot at unseating Senator Sherrod Brown, the most popular Democrat in Ohio and perhaps the Midwest. And, from his perch on MSNBC, former Gov. John Kasich was none-too-gentle in recalling the worst of Trump’s record as President. 

The reunion-style effort turned out to be as animating as Madame Tussauds. Ultimately, the pull of MAGA proved too magnetic for rank-and-file Ohio Republicans to resist. Trump got his guy on Tuesday, which means Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer did, too. And it may say more about the GOP nationally than anyone in the Establishment wing of the party was ready to admit in Columbus or in D.C.

About 65 minutes after the polls closed Tuesday, The Associated Press called the race for former car dealer Bernie Moreno, leaving state Senator Matt Dolan once again on the losing end of a primary for U.S. Senate. Secretary of State Frank LaRose finished a distant third, despite initially vying for some love from the MAGA-minded voters, too. His early refusal to engage in blatant lies about the 2020 elections—the ones he ran—or indulge in victimhood about Trump’s win in the state proved disqualifying to too many Republicans. When his ambitions got the best of him and he parroted the lines they wanted, few believed him. 

Ohio, once the Electoral College's quintessential swing state, went red in the last two White House races, and the Biden campaign sees little reason to think that will change this year. (Last year’s successful ballot measure cementing abortion rights in the Ohio constitution was a rare glimmer of hope for the state's Democratic Party, but ultimately just that.) 

That means the Senate race will effectively serve as the top of the ticket. It’s why Brown allies are celebrating Moreno's win; a super PAC with ties to Schumer spent more than $2 million in an effort to boost Moreno and draw their perceivest weakest candidate to defeat this fall. 

Democrats and those who caucus with them have the narrowest of 51 votes in the 100-seat chamber. Brown and Sen. Jon Tester of Montana are trying to hold their seats come November, while Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia is retiring after his term ends early next year. Democrats have zero optimism about holding West Virginia, meaning they’re going to have to run perfect races in Ohio and Montana, states that Trump carried by 8 points and 16 points respectively. (Democrats do rightly note that the margin in Montana was down from the 20 points in 2016 when Trump ran against Hillary Clinton.)

The Ohio Republican Establishment understood their backyard could be the whole ballgame for the balance of power in the Senate come next year. So did their national counterparts. In Washington, some of the most senior Republicans were sending daily nuggets of advice, data, and polling. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and its friends at the Senate Leadership Fund were quietly pulling for Dolan, knowing that any public intervention from allies of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell was likely to do more harm than good. They watched with great frustration as Republicans last cycle put forward candidates who proved unable to prevail in races seen as pick-up chances in places like Georgia, Pennsylvania, and Arizona. 

Private polls showed the Ohio primary race tighter than the public ones had suggested for months. That’s why so many Republicans came off the bench to try to boost Dolan, a former prosecutor and partial owner of the MLB team now known as the Cleveland Guardians. Ohio’s deep GOP history suggested there could finally be a breaking of the Trump fever; it was one of two states that neither Trump nor Ted Cruz won in 2016’s primaries, although Kasich’s political machine might have hit its high-water mark on that one.

The GOP Establishment—hardly squishes, but also never nihilists—thought the best outcome would be guiding a moderate nerd who ponied up $9 million of his own cash to get this far to a viable nomination. Ultimately, it only snagged him about one-third of the primary vote on Tuesday.

Few states have seen their political identities morph as quickly as Ohio in the last two decades. When John Kasich won Ohio’s governorship in 2010, there was only one Republican elected to statewide office at the time, the state auditor who would give up the post to be his running mate. Democrats had the state House while Republicans had a significant advantage in the state Senate. But over his two terms as Governor, Kasich and his lieutenants completed a sweep of statewide constitutional officers. Democrats haven’t had a legislative majority in either chamber since 2010.

And, for the most part, the state’s GOP Governors have gotten to call the shots. That’s why the term-limited DeWine putting himself on the field seemed so significant. DeWine has found the careful footing of being able to critique Trumpism without drawing too much ire from the ex-President. But when it came to Moreno, DeWine was more blunt: the Cleveland-area car salesman had no shot of defeating Brown in November. 

Both sides understand the stakes this year. Before the results were known, the parties and their allied super PACs and interest groups had booked $140 million in post-primary television advertising, setting up the costliest Senate race this cycle. Both parties expect Brown to be formidable; he consistently runs ahead of presidential candidates in the state and has been masterful in being a progressive hero without alienating the working-class voters who just want to get a fair shake. But these are trickier waters than the shores of Lake Erie to navigate; Brown won the Senate seat in the a wave election in 2006 that punished anyone with an R next to their name—in that race, it was DeWine—and won reelection twice more: in 2012 with incumbent President Barack Obama on the ballot with him, and again in the 2018 referendum of Trump’s first two years. 

Democrats had been bullishly optimistic—sometimes through a feigned smile—for the last few months about Brown’s prospects. The GOP Establishment getting involved in the race dimmed some of that good spirit. After all, for more than two decades then-Ohio GOP Chairman Bob Bennett was regarded as the most powerful state party leader in the country. The machinery largely transferred to Kasich’s control. It’s nothing to be mocked, even when Democrats are at their best.

None of that mattered to Trump’s team, either. The ex-President swooped into Ohio for an election-eve-weekend rally. His pals like Kari Lake and son Don Jr. fanned out over the state. And the candidate whom Trump helped in the state’s last Senate primary, now-Sen. J.D. Vance, dutifully took his cues from Mar a Lago and stumped for Moreno.

Ohio could have been the first fracture in the Trumpist takeover of the current Republican Party. But instead of nominating a member of the 442nd richest family in the world—Dolan’s extended family has a $6.2 billion fortune—the state went with a loyalist to Trumpism. The MAGA faction mocked him as Mitt Dolan. And it worked. As the long-cliched saying goes, As goes Ohio, so goes the nation.

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Write to Philip Elliott at philip.elliott@time.com