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Republicans prepare for battle in the race to unseat Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown

Bernie Moreno, a businessman whose family has gotten close to former President Donald Trump, is inching toward a bid and catching attention from GOP activists in the state.
Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, testifies during a Senate hearing on March 9, 2023.
Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, testifies during a Senate hearing on March 9.Brendan Smialowski / AFP - Getty Images file

CLEVELAND — The race to take on Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, could soon be crowded, with at least three prominent Republicans weighing whether to enter a primary field that Matt Dolan, a wealthy state lawmaker, has had to himself for more than two months.

Bernie Moreno, a Cleveland-area businessman who briefly ran for Senate in 2022, is inching closer toward another campaign. He’s been booked for several GOP functions in the coming weeks, including one promoting him as a "Potential Candidate for US Senate."

“Don’t want to replace a career politician with a career politician?” Emily Moreno Miller, Moreno’s daughter, a GOP operative with ties to former President Donald Trump’s political team, tweeted this week while sharing information about the event. “Be in Batavia, OH on March 27.”

The Ohio contest is expected to be one of the nastiest and most expensive in the country next year as both parties battle for control of the Senate. Brown, the only Democrat in Ohio who has had consistent success in statewide elections, is seen as one of the most vulnerable Senate incumbents, along with Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin, W.Va., and Jon Tester, Mont.

Miller’s tweet was aimed at Brown — a three-term senator who’s held elected office for most of the last 50 years — and at Dolan, as well as another potential Republican candidate, Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose. Dolan, a state senator whose family owns the Cleveland Guardians baseball franchise, has served in the Legislature for years. LaRose, an Army veteran, was a state senator before winning the first of his two terms as secretary of state.

Former Senate candidate Bernie Moreno in Delaware, Ohio, April 23, 2022.
Former Senate candidate Bernie Moreno in Delaware, Ohio, in 2022.Joe Maiorana / AP file

"Ohio workers know no one works harder for them than Sherrod Brown," Brown's campaign manager, Rachel Petri, told NBC News. "That record fighting for the dignity of work will stand in sharp contrast to whoever Republicans nominate."

Moreno, a former car dealer, ended his last Senate bid months before the primary, after meeting with Trump and determining the field was too crowded for him to win. Before the 2016 election, Moreno had been a Trump skeptic, calling him a “maniac” in private correspondence with a Republican fundraiser that NBC News obtained two years ago. But Moreno’s family has gotten closer to Trump since then and has forged other alliances that could be useful in a primary. 

His daughter, who worked on the former president’s 2020 re-election campaign, is married to Rep. Max Miller, R-Ohio, a former Trump aide. They held their wedding last year at Trump’s Bedminster golf course in New Jersey. And after dropping out last year, Moreno grew close with now-Sen. JD Vance, the “Hillbilly Elegy” author who eventually earned Trump’s endorsement and won the primary. Moreno advised the campaign and was called in to play Tim Ryan, Vance’s Democratic opponent, in debate prep, said a source familiar with the arrangement who was not authorized to speak on the record.

Moreno endorsed Trump for president in 2024 in a guest column last month for The Columbus Dispatch. He also recently attended the annual Conservative Political Action Conference outside Washington, D.C. Moreno did not address attendees but worked the corridors, mingling with Trump-friendly activists and conservative media personalities.

In addition to the event this month in Batavia, near Cincinnati, Moreno is scheduled to gather with Republicans at a pizzeria before a party dinner in Circleville, south of Columbus. Moreno also is scheduled to join LaRose in May at a Northeast Ohio Conservative Club dinner.

“I have noticed there’s a very popular grassroots movement out there for him and they’re very excited about it,” Meredith Freedhoff, who chairs the Franklin County GOP in Columbus, said of Moreno.

Freedhoff, whose organization is expected to endorse in the race, added that Moreno is the only candidate or potential Senate candidate she’s heard from. 

“Bernie has reached out to me a couple of times with events that he’s doing,” she said. “And I’ve attended some of them. He has not announced his candidacy, but obviously I will be very happy for the sake of his grassroots people if he did. He’s a good man.”

LaRose’s preparations for a possible campaign also have ramped up in recent weeks. He visited CPAC, where he participated in a panel discussion titled “They Stole It From Us Legally” with fellow Republicans Abraham Hamadeh and Lee Zeldin, election deniers who lost their 2022 bids for Arizona attorney general and New York governor, respectively. He also was listed among the table hosts for a dinner headlined by Kari Lake, the Republican who has not accepted her loss in Arizona’s race for governor last year.

LaRose has said he does not believe the 2020 election was stolen from Trump, but nevertheless earned a re-election endorsement from him last year. He used his CPAC appearance to hold up Ohio, which Trump won by 8 points, as a state that holds elections in a fair and responsible manner.

“We run our elections in Ohio so well, so transparently, so honestly that even the loser knows they lost,” LaRose said in an interview with NBC News at CPAC.

LaRose has not set a timetable on a decision, but compared to Dolan and Moreno, he does not have a deep reservoir of personal wealth to draw from if he enters the race. 

“What I’m exploring right now is: Can I be my party’s strongest candidate for this office? I’ve seen some polling numbers that show me that I can,” LaRose said.

Another possible Republican entrant, Rep. Warren Davidson, received a boost this month at a private donor retreat for Club for Growth, a conservative organization that has been at odds with Trump in recent months. David McIntosh, the organization’s president, called on Davidson there to seek the Senate nomination and pledged the group’s support, according to two sources.

Davidson and a political adviser to him did not respond to messages this week seeking comment.

Club for Growth’s resources could help Davidson compete in a field with better-known and self-funded candidates. The group last year backed Josh Mandel, the state’s former treasurer, who finished second to Vance in the primary. Dolan finished a close third, and like last time is running as a traditional conservative gently urging the party to move past Trump. 

“Republicans’ primary dynamics are getting messier by the day, and whatever GOP candidate emerges from their intraparty fight in Ohio will be damaged and out of step with the voters who will decide the general election,” said Nora Keefe, a spokesperson for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Unlike Moreno, Dolan has called for a competitive and robust presidential primary in 2024. Dolan also has had a several month head start to staff up, picking up operatives and fundraisers who were active in last year’s primary — including those who were with other candidates.

“In the short time Matt Dolan has been a candidate,” said Chris Maloney, his lead strategist, “he has moved quickly to assemble a top-notch campaign team, recruit grassroots volunteers and earn more than 100 notable endorsements from Republican leaders across Ohio.”