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Key takeaways from Monday’s U.S. Senate Ohio Republican primary debate

Ohio’s Republican U.S. Senate primary candidates met for their second of three debates at the University of Findlay Monday evening. Secretary of State Frank LaRose, state Sen. Matt Dolan, R-Chagrin Falls, and entrepreneur Bernie Moreno sat side-by-side on stage. The winner of the March 19 primary will face Democratic Ohio U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown in November.

By Nick Evans, Ohio Capital Journal - February 20, 2024
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Frank LaRose
Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose speaks to the Fairfield County Lincoln Republican Club in Pickerington, Ohio, on March 24, 2022. (AP Photo/Paul Vernon, File)

Ohio’s Republican U.S. Senate primary candidates met for their second of three debates at the University of Findlay Monday evening. Secretary of State Frank LaRose, state Sen. Matt Dolan, R-Chagrin Falls, and entrepreneur Bernie Moreno sat side-by-side on stage. The winner of the March 19 primary will face Democratic Ohio U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown in November.

On familiar issues like immigration, the economy and abortion, the candidates filled out the bingo card. There was no shortage of “finish the wall,” “cut taxes,” and “protect the unborn.” But even as the candidates played the hits their performance uncovered a bit of new territory and offered hints about the race ahead.

Team up on Moreno

Westlake businessman Bernie Moreno has secured a series of endorsements including several county parties, high-profile Ohio Republicans in Congress like U.S. Rep. Jim Jordan and U.S. Sen. J.D. Vance, and of course, former President Donald Trump. The combined weight of those supporters is hard to ignore, and both of Moreno’s competitors obliged, giving him plenty of attention.

LaRose in particular peppered Moreno with attacks all evening. He criticized Moreno over a Massachusetts wage theft lawsuit and for sitting on a board that made donations to Planned Parenthood. He brought up past op-eds in which Moreno advocated for greater wind and solar subsidies or more lenient immigration laws.

“He wrote an article that said there should be a path to citizenship and my team will share it,” LaRose said. “It’s his own words. But now that he wants to try to convince people he’s a conservative, he’s changed his tune on that. Which Bernie are we going to get in Washington?”

“Both of you guys are reinventing yourself on the issue of immigration,” Dolan chimed in.

“Frank, you were wrapping your arms around No Labels which had a clear path to citizenship,” he continued. “And Bernie you are quoted as saying you want a path to residency, and you think it’s important that all illegals become U.S. citizens.”

But Moreno pushed back, arguing “this is what they do, this is what career politicians do, they don’t want businesspeople and outsiders in their game,” after LaRose brought up the wage theft suit. In that case, a judge determined Moreno destroyed evidence despite a court order to preserve it.

After LaRose criticized him over an energy subsidies op-ed, Moreno quipped “I was against HB 6. These guys weren’t.” He continued, “They’re going to have to answer for their involvement in that scandal to a different audience than the one that’s here tonight.”

Minimum wage?

Moreno and Dolan are both wealthy. They’ve both been able to write multi-million dollar checks to help float their campaigns. LaRose’s net worth isn’t in the same category, but he nevertheless loaned his campaign a quarter million dollars. In short, all three candidates are very far removed from life on minimum wage.

But when asked, very directly, if there should be a minimum wage at all, not one said yes.

Moreno argued, “the markets are the best way to determine what wages should be.” He insisted in his experience as a business owner that paying good wages gets good workers.

“At the end of the day, the markets will flush that out,” he said, “and make certain that you get workers that get a good job.”

LaRose landed in a similar place. “The challenge with these government interventions like so-called minimum wage is that it has a distorting effect on the market,” he said. “The market is the best way to set wages.”

All three took turns beating up on the idea of a livable wage.

“Look,” Dolan said, “the minimum wage is not intended to be a livable wage.”

“I’ve employed people,” he added. “We started some people at minimum wage, the purpose of doing that was to inspire them to work harder.”

Moreno also insisted the minimum was never meant to provide workers enough to get by, and LaRose warned about a potential ballot initiative to establish a $15 minimum wage in Ohio.

Throughout the evening the candidates hammered on the cost of gas and groceries, but explicitly opposing minimum and livable wages would seem to hurt the Ohioans pinched most by higher prices.

In a press conference prebuttal hosted by Ohio Democrats, Ohio Federation of Teachers president Melissa Cropper argued, “The Morenos of the world see us workers as expendable line items there to help them maximize the profits, while paying us the least amount that they can pay us.”

Peeking toward the general

Still, the Republican candidates took pains to differentiate themselves based on the threat they pose to Brown.

Dolan repeatedly pointed to his record addressing issues raised in the debate at the state level.

“I’m glad to hear that my opponents are talking about all the things that I’ve been able to do here in Ohio that we need to do at the Washington level, so experience matters,” he said.

But Dolan also offered a reality check on abortion, noting Brown won reelection in 2018 with only 16 counties. In 13 of those, Dolan said, the abortion rights measure, Issue 1, out-performed Brown’s 2018 figures. He argued Moreno and LaRose’s recent positions on abortion — no exceptions and a 6-week ban respectively — will taint them in the general election.

Responding to missing out on Trump’s endorsement, LaRose pointed to the backing of pro-gun and anti-abortion groups in Ohio.

“I’m the one that doesn’t just say it, I’m the one that has proven it, but I’m also the one that can defeat Sherrod Brown,” LaRose argued. “We need to defeat Sherrod Brown and replace him with someone who actually shares our values. I’m the one that checks both of those boxes.”

Meanwhile, Moreno leaned on Trump’s decision to endorse him.

To LaRose, Moreno said, “He knows who you are. He knows who I am. And he knows that I’m the one who’s going to have his back and I’m going to win this primary.”

“We’re going to change this country over the next four years in a deeply conservative way,” Moreno added.

This story was originally published in the Ohio Capital Journal


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