IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.
2024 Election

Ohio secretary of state tells donors he'll enter GOP Senate primary 'soon'

Frank LaRose, who has downplayed Trump's influence over the GOP, is preparing to join a potentially crowded field seeking to take on Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown.
Frank LaRose, Ohio Secretary of State, speaks on the 3rd day of the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, DC on March 4, 2023.
Frank LaRose, Ohio's secretary of state, at the Conservative Political Action Conference outside Washington on March 4.Lev Radin / Pacific Press / LightRocket via Getty Images file

CLEVELAND — Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose is alerting Republican donors that he plans to jump into his state’s already combative Senate primary “soon,” according to two voicemails shared with NBC News.

“I am preparing to, hopefully soon, announce my candidacy for this office,” LaRose said of the Senate race in one message that he left for a potential supporter last week.

“I am actively working towards and hope to soon announce my candidacy for the U.S. Senate,” he said in a voicemail left with another donor the same day.

If he runs, LaRose would be entering a GOP field that already includes two wealthy candidates: state Sen. Matt Dolan, whose family owns Major League Baseball’s Cleveland Guardians franchise, and Bernie Moreno, a Cleveland-area businessman who has received encouragement — though not an outright endorsement — from former President Donald Trump.

The winner of the GOP primary will take on Sen. Sherrod Brown, a three-term Democrat, in what’s expected to be one of the most expensive Senate battles of 2024.

In a telephone interview Tuesday, LaRose emphasized that he has not made a final decision.

“This is something that I’ve been carefully looking at and studying and even starting to take steps towards seeing if it’s possible. Because if you’re going to endeavor on something — a big task like this — then you need to make sure that you’ve got your ducks in a row and you’re ready to execute a good effort,” LaRose said.

“There are a lot of people reaching out to me,” he added. “They’re offering support as grassroots supporters, and there are people that are calling and saying that they would like to help financially when the time is right for that.”

LaRose is not the only prominent Ohio Republican moving toward a Senate bid. Rep. Warren Davidson, who has been nudged to run by the Club for Growth, a big-spending conservative group, has signaled serious interest in recent weeks, according to five GOP operatives who are closely watching the race. Davidson and his advisers have not responded to multiple questions about his intentions, but like Dolan, Moreno and LaRose, the congressman has met with the National Republican Senatorial Committee, a source familiar with the conversation said. The NRSC does not plan to pick a favorite in the primary, the source added.

The contest has echoes of Ohio’s 2022 Senate race, in which the crowded Republican field descended into nastiness, name-calling and endless debates over who was most loyal to Trump.

Dolan, the only candidate who didn’t angle for Trump’s endorsement in last year's GOP primary, finished third after putting more than $10 million of his own money into the campaign. Moreno also ran, but he dropped out after meeting with Trump, seeing no path to the nomination and fearing that the abundance of candidates would allow Dolan to win a narrow plurality. In an interview on Ohio’s conservative “Saving Liberty” podcast last month, Moreno expressed renewed fears about a Dolan victory in next year's primary — particularly if LaRose and Davidson run.

“If one or two other people jump in this race, and [Dolan] spends enough family money, he could win with 32% of the vote,” said Moreno, who has indicated that he does not plan to self-fund his campaign as robustly as he did during his brief 2022 bid. “Think about that scary situation.”

Moreno has sought to frame Dolan’s ambivalence about Trump as a disloyal and disqualifying refusal to support the former president if he’s again the nominee in 2024. Moreno, who in 2016 criticized Trump but has in the last two years cultivated a closer relationship with him, has already endorsed Trump’s bid. And though Dolan has expressed hope for a competitive presidential primary, he pledged in a February letter to county GOP chairs that he would support “our party’s presidential nominee with everything I have.”

Moreno also has taken aim at LaRose, suggesting that the secretary of state is too important a job for his potential rival to abandon so soon after winning a second term.

Brown and his allies are watching the nascent clashes with glee.

“The Republicans in this primary are more focused on attacking one another than fighting for Ohioans,” said Reeves Oyster, a spokesperson for the Ohio Democratic Party. “As this primary heats up and gets nastier by the day, it’s clear that whoever emerges next year will be bruised, battered, and out-of-touch with Ohioans’ values.”

While Davidson’s moves have been the subject of whispers around Ohio, LaRose’s efforts have been more out in the open. Last week’s voicemails are in addition to other messages and emails that donors have received from LaRose or his political team in recent weeks and then passed along to others, including NBC News. LaRose, who lacks the personal finances of Dolan and Moreno, also has said that he’s been raising money for a super PAC.

The super PAC LaRose has referred to, Leadership for Ohio Fund, is registered as a 527 political organization with the IRS, but as of Tuesday afternoon it had not yet filed with the Federal Election Commission. LaRose has attended at least one of the group’s events, a meet-and-greet last month at the Washington home of Barry Jackson, who served as chief of staff under former House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. Other veterans of Boehner’s political operation were listed as members of the host committee.

“This group has a mission that very closely aligns with mine,” LaRose said of the super PAC, which focuses on election integrity voter participation issues. “I’m very comfortable that raising money into this group is being done in a completely legal and transparent way.”

LaRose also has been openly analyzing his chances as he speaks with activists and donors. He has, in interviews and phone calls, dismissed Dolan and Moreno as “nice guys” who lack the statewide name-recognition to defeat Brown in a general election. He also has downplayed Trump’s kind words about Moreno while also downplaying the former president’s influence in the primary. 

“There’s probably 20% of the party that will vote for whoever he [Trump] endorses,” LaRose said recently during a closed-door meeting with Ohio Republicans, according to audio first reported by Politico and later obtained by NBC News. “There’s another 20% that care about who he endorses, but that’s not going to be the decision-maker. And then there’s probably another 60% of the party that doesn’t care how he endorses.”

LaRose added that he believes he can earn Trump’s endorsement, as he did in his re-election bid for secretary of state. But that endorsement came the same day as LaRose’s endorsement for Trump-backed JD Vance in last year’s brutal Senate primary, fueling speculation of transactional politics. LaRose, who oversees Ohio’s elections, also has said he does not believe the 2020 election was stolen from Trump, but he has made overtures to election-denying Republicans in recent months. At this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference, he was listed among the table hosts for a dinner headlined by Kari Lake, the staunch Trump ally who has not accepted her loss in Arizona’s race for governor last year.

Trump’s endorsement “isn’t the entirety of someone’s candidacy,” LaRose told NBC News on Tuesday. “They can’t base their entire candidacy on one man’s endorsement, no matter how influential it may be.”