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Final weekend of Republican U.S. Senate race in Ohio is busy, bitter and brought out big bucks

From left, Mike Kallmeyer of Spectrum Networks Ohio moderates a Republican U.S. Senate primary forum with state Sen. Matt Dolan, Secretary of State Frank Larose and businessman Bernie Moreno Feb. 19, 2024, in the TLB Auditorium at the University of Findlay in Findlay, OH.
Jeremy Wadsworth
The Blade
From left, Mike Kallmeyer of Spectrum News 1 in Ohio moderates a Republican U.S. Senate primary forum with state Sen. Matt Dolan, Secretary of State Frank LaRose and businessman Bernie Moreno Feb. 19, 2024, in the TLB Auditorium at the University of Findlay in Findlay, Ohio.

The race among three men fighting for the Republican nomination to run against Ohio’s incumbent Democratic U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown this fall got increasingly bitter over the last few days. The final weekend before Tuesday's primary featured a Trump rally, a flurry of millions of dollars in ad spending and a salacious but disputed report about one of the candidates.

Matt Dolan, Frank LaRose and Bernie Moreno all campaigned across the state this weekend. The state senator, the secretary of state and the Cleveland-area businessman are locked in a race that's been close for months, but at least one poll shows a significant percentage of voters are still undecided.

At the Dayton International Airport in Vandalia Saturday, former President Donald Trump referenced the $2.7 million ad buy launched by Duty and Country, a super PAC aligned with U.S. Senate Democrats, touting Trump's endorsed candidate Moreno as “too conservative for Ohio.”

“He’s getting some very tough Democrat fake treatment right now, and we’re not going to stand for it," Trump said from the stage, set up in front of his airplane. Trump praised Moreno briefly and shouted out to Republican U.S. Sen. J.D. Vance and U.S. Reps. Jim Jordan and Max Miller, who were also at the event.

Moreno spoke before Trump arrived at the rally, which was hosted by the political action committee Buckeye Values PAC.

At the same time, Moreno was getting hit by LaRose in comments on social media and in ads from a PAC supporting Dolan, following a report by The Associated Press that said Moreno's email had been used to set up an account on an adult website to meet men for sex. Moreno strongly denies he did that, but the AP said it stands by the story.

Buckeye Values PAC sent out mailers noting LaRose's past support for LGBTQ issues with the question, "What team does Frank LaRose play for?" And Moreno's campaign issued a statement from his wife Bridget blasting Dolan for what it called a "disgusting smear."

Dolan was also the target of some comments from Trump, who once again protested the name change of Cleveland's baseball team to the Guardians. Dolan is a part owner of the team.

Dolan didn't reference the AP story directly on social media and instead focused on what he called "election meddling" with the ads from the U.S. Senate Democrats' PAC. But Buckeye Leadership Fund, the PAC supporting Dolan's candidacy, bought TV and radio ads quoting from the AP story about Moreno. It's unclear whether those ads aired or were stopped by cease and desist letters from Moreno's campaign.

LaRose's campaign hasn't been on the airwaves like Moreno's and Dolan's, and the PAC Leadership for Ohio, which backs him, hasn't bought ads in a while either.

On social media, LaRose said the race was about "trust" and said the ads from the Senate Democrats' PAC shows Moreno is the weakest candidate against Brown. LaRose also called Dolan a "RINO" — Republican in Name Only — for not endorsing Trump, though Dolan said on "The State of Ohio" TV show three weeks ago that he does support Trump and will vote for him even if the former president is convicted.

LaRose shared those posts on X, formerly known as Twitter, in between reminders from his office as the state's top elections official, about bringing photo ID when voting in person Tuesday and updates on early voting so far.

Polls show Moreno and Dolan, who’s backed by Gov. Mike DeWine and Republican former U.S. Sen. Rob Portman, are virtually tied in the race, which is on track to top Ohio's 2022 U.S. Senate race as the most expensive in state history.

In an email recapping the last few days of the campaign, the Ohio Democratic Party said of the contest, which it called "a slugfest": "No matter who claws their way across the finish line, they’ll be bruised and battered with substantial baggage, and will face a steep 'uphill climb' after making it clear they won’t fight for Ohioans."

Contact Karen at 614-578-6375 or at
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