Another bruising Senate race brews in Ohio as Republicans target Sherrod Brown

Matt Dolan, a wealthy state senator who lost in the GOP primary this year, hinted in a Monday email to county party leaders that he is preparing for another campaign.

Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, speaks at a rally for Ohio gubernatorial candidate Nan Whaley in Cincinnati on Nov. 3.Jeff Dean / AP file

CLEVELAND — One nasty and expensive Ohio Senate election had barely finished last week before Republicans turned their focus to what could be an even bigger slugfest in 2024: the race to challenge Sen. Sherrod Brown, the only Democrat who has consistently won statewide elections here over the last 40 years.

Matt Dolan, who lost to Sen.-elect J.D. Vance in a GOP primary this year, struck first, hinting in a Monday email to county party leaders that he is preparing for another campaign.

“The time we have for introspection is limited,” Dolan, a wealthy state senator, wrote in the email, obtained by NBC News and verified by one of his advisers. “Before we know it, 2024 will be upon us and we have work to do. We must … ensure Joe Biden and Sherrod Brown are sent packing.”

Brown’s seat — along with those held by Democrats Jon Tester of Montana and Joe Manchin of West Virginia — will be one of the GOP’s top pickup opportunities in two years.

Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan ran against Vance this year on an economic populist message that echoed Brown’s, but he still fell short by about 6 points. On a night that was disappointing for Republicans elsewhere, and raised concerns about the influence of former President Donald Trump, Ohio enjoyed its own little red wave — with Ryan's loss reinforcing GOP suspicions that Brown, who won re-election by 6 points in 2012 and 7 points in 2018, is more vulnerable than ever. 

Speaking to reporters this week, Brown reaffirmed that he intends to seek a fourth term.

The 2024 race, meanwhile, could be even nastier and more expensive than the one Vance survived. That race turned into a free-for-all — with more than $70 million worth of advertising, according to the ad-tracking firm AdImpact — after Republican Sen. Rob Portman announced he wouldn’t seek re-election. Jai Chabria, Vance’s chief campaign strategist, said he expects the “floodgates to open” with candidates eager to take on Brown.

“There’s no good reason for every Republican to not look at this, because they’ve seen what can happen here,” said Chabria, who guided Vance, an author and venture capitalist who had few political connections in the state, to a win that few predicted at the beginning of the primary season. “But they need to be sure they are battle ready, because it will be bruising.”

Along with the self-funding Dolan, others who are either courting party insiders and donors or being mentioned as prospects include Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose; Attorney General Dave Yost; Mark Kvamme, a venture capitalist with close ties to former Gov. John Kasich; and businessman Bernie Moreno, another self-funder who briefly sought this year’s GOP Senate nomination. Rep. Warren Davidson, who considered running for governor this year, and other members of the state’s Republican congressional delegation, could also be in the mix.

Josh Mandel, a former state treasurer who lost to Brown in 2012 and finished second to Vance in this year’s primary, appeared to categorically rule out another run when asked this week.

“Josh is not running for Senate in 2024 and has no plans to return to politics,” Scott Guthrie, Mandel’s longtime political aide, wrote in a text message responding on his behalf.

Dolan’s pitch to county chairs this week leaned into frustrations that Republicans have vented toward Trump after disappointing midterm results. Dolan did not refer to Trump by name in his email but suggested that his debunked theories about the 2020 election — and his support for candidates who embraced them — kept the party from gaining control of the Senate.

Vance, who has made baseless claims about the 2020 election, was among those whom Trump endorsed and campaigned with ahead of the midterms. In his email, Dolan avoided mention of Vance’s win, instead citing Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine’s landslide re-election as a template for his own potential campaign. DeWine has never questioned the legitimacy of Biden’s election.

“What we witnessed nationally should convince us the country is ready for substantive candidates, not personalities and election deniers,” Dolan wrote. He added that he has been “encouraged by the calls, emails and texts” that he has received and that he welcomes “the opportunity to speak with you” about the best way to defeat Brown.

Dolan’s money — his family owns baseball's Cleveland Guardians — and his antipathy toward Trump helped him stand out in this year’s primary. He finished third, not far behind Mandel, after surging in the race’s closing days. But Trump had already endorsed Vance, affording him an advantage in a crowded field where only a plurality was required to win the nomination. And Vance’s close ties to Trump did not cost him the general election, even as Ryan made the argument that Vance would be an extension of Trump’s right-wing movement.

In the last campaign, Dolan and his advisers stressed that he was not a "Never Trumper." Dolan also has said he would support Trump, who officially launched his third presidential campaign on Tuesday night, if he’s the GOP presidential nominee in 2024. Pressed on those previous remarks this week, Dolan told NBC News that Republicans “should ignore calls for a coronation” and engage in a “robust and competitive presidential primary.”

“To be a governing party, to be a growing party … Republicans must look to the future,” he said.

Other possible candidates have tried to get closer to Trump. LaRose, for example, had until recently been a vocal critic of those who claim widespread ballot fraud, citing his own work overseeing elections in Ohio. Then in April, weeks before a primary in which he faced a challenge on the right, LaRose endorsed Vance and Trump endorsed LaRose. The secretary of state has since taken a harder line on election issues, creating a public integrity unit to investigate the same crimes he previously had said were rare.

A spokesperson said LaRose had no comment for this article.

Chabria, who has been a close LaRose adviser over the years but is not committed to any potential 2024 candidate, questioned the wisdom of running as a Trump critic.

"National pundits have gotten everything wrong, over and over again — and that is very true for Ohio," Chabria said. "They cannot wait to write Donald Trump’s obituary. In a Republican primary, my prediction is he will continue to play extremely heavily in an important role."

For Brown, this year’s midterm elections in Ohio have yielded a more unpleasant set of questions than the last. After securing his third term in 2018, Brown flirted with a run for president, holding up his victory as a blueprint for how Democrats could win back red-leaning Midwest states. This time, he finds himself shutting down speculation that he’ll retire.

“I run to win,” he told reporters this week after confirming that he plans to run again in 2024. “And people recognize that I get up every day and fight for the dignity of work.”

Justin Barasky, who managed Brown’s re-election campaign in 2018 and served as a media strategist for Ryan, emphasized several differences between the two Democrats — differences that he said show Brown is not as vulnerable as Republicans believe him to be.

For one, Barasky said, Brown won’t be running in the midterm of an unpopular presidential administration, although Biden has said he plans to seek re-election in 2024. The ticket in Ohio won’t be led by DeWine, who won last week by roughly 25 points and likely had coattails for Vance and other Republicans on the ballot. And national Democrats are far more likely to spend money on Brown, an incumbent they can’t afford to lose, than they were on Ryan.

“While Tim Ryan I think did an excellent job of introducing himself and defining himself statewide, he still had to do it,” Barasky said. “Sherrod already has a statewide brand.”

Chabria agreed that Brown will be a tough opponent. 

“He is a different beast than Tim Ryan, because Tim Ryan was a Xerox of a Xerox of Sherrod Brown,” Chabria said. “Sherrod Brown actually understands what it means to be a populist.”