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

Trump-backed Bernie Moreno wins Ohio's Republican Senate primary

NBC News projects Moreno will emerge from the three-candidate GOP field, setting up a race with Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown in the fall.
Get more newsLiveon

WESTLAKE, Ohio — Bernie Moreno, a former car dealer and blockchain entrepreneur, has won Ohio’s Republican Senate nomination, NBC News projects, fending off a late surge from state Sen. Matt Dolan in a divisive duel of self-funding candidates.

Moreno’s victory Tuesday spares former President Donald Trump embarrassment in what became a brawl of a primary. Trump endorsed Moreno in December and headlined a rally for him last weekend — a sign that Moreno needed help across the finish line.

"I want to thank President Trump for all he did for me, for this campaign, for his unwavering support, for his love of this country," Moreno said in his victory speech here at a hotel near his home in a Cleveland suburb. "Because I don't think I've ever seen someone who loves this country the way he does."

Moreno will face three-term Sen. Sherrod Brown, who was unopposed in the Democratic primary Tuesday, in a general election that will help determine control of the Senate.

Brown is one of two Democratic incumbents, along with Jon Tester of Montana, up for re-election in states that Trump twice won by wide margins. Both parties plan to spend heavily on the Ohio race this fall.

Follow live results from the Ohio GOP Senate primary

Moreno quickly went on the attack against Brown, branding him as a far-left figure.

"You know, the reality is we have an opportunity," Moreno told his supporters. "We have an opportunity now to retire the old commie."

Brown, in a statement released by his campaign after the race was called, vowed that he will "stand up to anyone who gets in the way" of hard-working Ohioans.

“The choice ahead of Ohio is clear: Bernie Moreno has spent his career and campaign putting himself first and would do the same if elected,” Brown said. “Elections come down to whose side you’re on, and I’ll always work for Ohio — from standing up to special interests taking advantage of Ohio workers and corporations raising costs for families to making sure our veterans get the healthcare they earned.”

A third GOP candidate, state Secretary of State Frank LaRose, began the race as the front-runner but lacked the resources to run a robust ad campaign or attract big-name endorsements. He was on track to finish in a distant third place.

Despite the nasty tenor the race took on in recent weeks, Moreno had kind words for Dolan and LaRose and described Dolan's call to concede as gracious.

"I think what we have to do now is [have] a fully united party," Moreno said. "Understand we have one mission, which is to get rid of Sherrod Brown."

Dolan, speaking to reporters at his watch party in the Cleveland suburb of Independence, said he congratulated Moreno and offered words of encouragement: "Rest up tonight, go celebrate, and then go beat Sherrod Brown."

Trump’s rally Saturday near Dayton set up distinct battle lines for the final days of the race: the former president's MAGA movement vs. Ohio’s old-guard establishment.

South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, Arizona Senate candidate Kari Lake and Sen. JD Vance, who won a nasty primary here two years ago with Trump’s backing, were among those who crisscrossed the state for Moreno down the stretch. Dolan, meanwhile, got assists from two Trump-cautious Republicans, Gov. Mike DeWine and former Sen. Rob Portman.

The often-hostile vibes of the GOP primary underscored the high stakes in November.

“This is the last gasp of breath of the swamp RINO establishment in Ohio,” Moreno said at Saturday’s rally with Trump. “And I need you on Tuesday to stab it right in the heart and make it clear that in Ohio, we put America first. We don’t put the interests of foreign countries first.”

Bernie Moreno, Matt Dolan and Frank LaRose
Bernie Moreno, Matt Dolan and Frank LaRose at the final Republican Senate debate at Miami University on March 6.Jason Houston / Courtesy WLWT

Trump’s last-minute visit — a source close to him told NBC News the week before that having him attend a rally for Moreno was “highly unlikely” — illustrated how tightly Moreno’s political fate was tied to Trump. Moreno featured him in ads even before Trump was officially on board. 

A spot that aired repeatedly late last year included a clip of Trump praising Moreno to right-wing activists: “We love Ohio,” Trump told the crowd, “and we love Bernie Moreno.”

That strategy required only minor adjustments once Trump issued his formal endorsement. His support helped elevate Moreno, who aside from a brief Senate run in 2022 wasn’t familiar to voters, and put him on more equal footing with Dolan and LaRose. Moreno also self-funded a sizable part of his TV-heavy campaign, lending $4.2 million to the effort.

But he found himself toward the end in a close race with Dolan, whose family became wealthy in the cable television industry and owns Cleveland’s Major League Baseball franchise. Dolan put in $10 million of his own money, underwriting an aggressive advertising push that allowed him to define himself and his policy agenda earlier and more often than his opponents could.

Dolan maintained a political distance from Trump, presenting himself as a champion of “Trump policies” while insisting Trump's personality “is not me.”

"I’ll let you guys debate that," Dolan said Tuesday night when he was asked whether his loss represented the end of the old-guard GOP in Ohio. "I knew what I wanted to accomplish in this race, and we came up short." 

Triggered by Dolan’s late surge, Duty and Country, a Democratic super PAC tied to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., launched multimillion-dollar ad blitz aimed at boosting Moreno by promoting his conservative credentials and Trump's endorsement. The meddling reflected Dolan’s potential general election strength — he is familiar to voters in heavily Democratic Cuyahoga County, where Brown must run up the score to win in November.

Moreno alluded to the ad in his victory speech, saying he wears "with honor" his support for and from Trump.

"Bernie Moreno cannot be trusted to put the interests of Ohioans over his own," JB Poersch, the president of the Senate Majority PAC, which is affiliated with Duty and Country, said Tuesday night.

LaRose entered the primary with the highest name recognition, having won two statewide elections. But the self-proclaimed “thousandaire” lacked the financial resources available to Dolan and Moreno. His campaign couldn’t afford TV ads, relying instead on an allied super PAC that mostly attacked Moreno in recent weeks. LaRose spent the last days of the race believing that the many undecided voters showing up in the polls would break for the candidate they knew best on Election Day.

“While this is not my time to serve as our party’s nominee for the United States Senate, I’m profoundly grateful for those who gave me their support,” LaRose said in a statement Tuesday night.

The seeds of this race were planted in the state’s 2022 Senate primary, won by Vance. Moreno was briefly a candidate then, but he dropped out after he met with Trump and realized he wasn’t likely to earn his endorsement. Dolan ran that year, too — the only GOP contender who didn’t overtly audition for Trump’s backing. Trump, worried that a well-funded but disloyal candidate could emerge from a crowded field by winning a small plurality of the vote, roasted Dolan over his family’s rebranding of the Cleveland Indians as the Guardians.

Moreno followed Trump’s lead and endorsed Vance. So did LaRose, who scored Trump's endorsement for his secretary of state re-election campaign the day he declared his support for Vance. Dolan, thanks in part to how little he was attacked in TV ads, finished in a relatively strong third place in the seven-way contest.

The attacks on Dolan started late again this year, reflecting doubts that a candidate known for his Trump ambivalence could win a GOP primary. But Moreno and his allies began piling on in earnest this month, as polls dispelled that thinking. At Saturday’s rally, Trump rekindled his criticism of the Guardians change and characterized Dolan as a Mitt Romney wannabe — a pointed attack, given the Utah senator’s quite public loathing of the former president.

“You got to win, Bernie,” Trump said at another point in the rally, giving voice to the possibility that a Moreno loss could embarrass him. “Don’t leave me alone. Don’t leave me alone, Bernie.” 

Elsewhere in Ohio, state Rep. Derek Merrin, who received an eleventh-hour endorsement from Trump, won the GOP primary Tuesday to take on Democratic Rep. Marcy Kaptur in the 9th Congressional District. The race is expected to be one of the top House battleground contests this fall.

In Ohio's 13th District, the site of another key race for House control, former state Sen. Kevin Coughlin advanced out the Republican primary and will face freshman Democratic Rep. Emilia Sykes.