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Ohio’s Republican U.S. Senate candidates spar in first televised debate

The three Ohio Republican candidates competing for their party’s U.S. Senate nomination met Monday in the race’s first televised statewide debate.

By Nick Evans, Ohio Capital Journal - January 22, 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)

State Sen. Matt Dolan, R-Chagrin Falls, Ohio Sec. of State Frank LaRose, and Cleveland-area businessman Bernie Moreno tussled over issues like immigration, abortion and the economy. Each insists they should be the state’s Republican standard bearer, while their competitors would fall flat against Ohio Democratic U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown.

The debate sets the stage for what could be a consequential and highly competitive race. While presidential campaigns have largely moved away from Ohio to focus on other battlegrounds, the state could help determine who controls the closely divided Senate.

Ohio’s primary election is March 19.

Immigration

The debate kicked off with a discussion of immigration and the U.S.-Mexico border. It’s been a perennial issue for Republicans and one that all three candidates have made a centerpiece of their campaigns. But the rhetoric has grown sharper since Ohio’s last U.S. Senate campaign in 2022.

During the last cycle, now-U.S. Sen. J.D. Vance, R-OH, argued cartels should be designated terrorist organizations. Now, all three Republican candidates embrace the idea.

Does LaRose agree the U.S. should use drone strikes against them? “100%,” he said, adding, “we must define these cartels as foreign terrorist organizations and use the full force of the U.S. military and the U.S. federal government to kill them so that they can’t kill our fellow Americans.”

LaRose has also proposed deploying three military divisions to the border.

Moreno criticized that rhetoric as “irresponsible.”

“We have to work with Mexico to give Mexico the option,” he argued, “They can be our largest legal trading partner or our largest illegal trading partner — they can’t be both.”

Similarly, Dolan argued the administration should threaten to withhold aid and trade with Mexico to compel its participation in fighting cartels.

But all three candidates readily staked out an even more radical position — ending birthright citizenship. “Birthright citizenship is a bad idea,” LaRose argued, adding people who came to the country illegally should not be able to “take advantage of that.”

It’s an idea former President Donald Trump has dangled for years, but birthright citizenship is guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment.

Abortion

The candidates also made their case for a national abortion ban — even if they quibbled with the terminology.

“You’re using that word, I’m not,” Moreno argued before pitching “a 15-week floor where there’s common sense restrictions after 15 weeks.”

Dolan signed on to 15 weeks, with “the three exceptions,” presumably rape, incest, and health of the mother.

LaRose argued “it’s not enough to be pro-birth” and insisted “we need to make sure there are supports available” for prospective mothers.

Still, like the others, LaRose argued, “the states can set their own standards, but there should be a bare minimum that we look at at the federal level.”

But after the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision overturning Roe v. Wade sent abortion policy back to the states, the moderators pressed the candidates on why they believe federal lawmakers should be involved at all.

“I don’t want it to be a federal issue,” Dolan insisted, “but I don’t want late term abortions to be the norm in the United States of America because that is out of touch.”

A few minutes later, however, the moderators asked Dolan whether federal lawmakers should pursue anti-trans legislation and he offered a different argument.

“No,” he said, “the Tenth Amendment makes it clear. The issues that are not expressly stated in the Constitution are left to the states and in Ohio.”

The economy and federal spending

When it comes to backing stopgap continuing resolutions to keep the federal government funded, LaRose and Moreno both readily embraced shutting down the federal government as a negotiation tactic.

“You would never run a business that way,” Moreno said, dismissing the approach as kicking the can down the road. “Republicans need to go into a negotiation with nothing off the table,” he added.

LaRose insisted “if the Democrats are unwilling to join us on border security, if they’re unwilling to get the out-of-control spending under control, you bet I’m willing to shut down the government.”

He added it’s not something to “relish” but “absolutely a tool we have to be willing to use.”

Dolan stands out for his experience actually drafting budgets as the Ohio Senate’s Finance committee chair. And while he said he wouldn’t use continuing resolutions, he emphasized his ability to get agreement.

“You have to be willing to make difficult choices and I have a career where I have made difficult choices,” Dolan argued, “They always haven’t been the best political choice for me, but they’ve always been the best for Ohio.”

The Trump factor

Moreno got the former president’s endorsement late last month — a boon for the candidate after Trump’s backing helped propel Vance’s primary victory in 2022.

LaRose had sought Trump’s endorsement as well, and after falling short, argued what matters is who will have the president’s back in the Senate. But Moreno pushed back.

“The reality is he did endorse me,” Moreno insisted. “He knows who Frank LaRose is and doesn’t think that Frank will have his back and understands that dynamic.”

In this campaign, and his unsuccessful run in 2022, Dolan has made a point of not seeking Trump’s approval. He insists “I’m about enacting Trump policies,” but that his chief focus is on Ohio voters.

“They know that I will fight for Ohio,” Dolan argued, “and they also know the only thing you can trust about my two opponents is that when the political winds change, they will change with it.”

It’s one of the few areas in which the candidates diverge, even if it’s more a matter of style than substance.

A much more significant divergence is evident when it comes to funding for Ukraine. All three have vocally supported aid for Israel — LaRose quoting the Bible in doing so. But when it comes to Ukraine, LaRose contends “not another penny will go to Ukraine until we’ve secured the southern border.”

“The world’s most exceptional nation can do things to make sure that our world is safer and more importantly, that America is more secure,” LaRose argued, “and that means that we need to create the circumstances where the fight in Ukraine can end very rapidly.”

Moreno wants nothing to do with additional aid to Ukraine, arguing instead “what we need to do is drive towards peace and end the killing in Ukraine.”

But Dolan, noting he represents a substantial Ukrainian population, said he views the issue differently. “This isn’t a balance sheet war for them,” he said, “this is real.”

“If the United States does not continue to provide ammunition, weaponry, and aid to Ukraine, then Ohio boys and girls will be fighting Russia, in Poland, Western Europe or the Baltics,” Dolan argued.

“That is a result of their policies,” he said of LaRose and Moreno.

Democratic prebuttal

Meanwhile, Democrats in Ohio are feeling a bit optimistic after recent victories for marijuana and abortion rights ballot measures. After voters approved Issue 1, enshrining abortion access in the state constitution, the Ohio Democratic Party began arguing abortion would be on the ballot again in 2024. All three Republican candidates, party chair Liz Walters argued, support a national abortion ban.

Even as Republicans have tried to steer the race onto more favorable territory, former President Donald Trump has dragged it back — calling the repeal of Roe v. Wade during his administration “a miracle.

In a call with reporters before Monday’s debate, the party aimed to keep the issue front and center. Dr. Catherine Romanos, a family doctor in Columbus, said her patients “breathed a sigh of relief” after the passage of Issue 1 last November.

“They asked me less often if what they’re doing is breaking the law and they seem confident to come and get the care that they need,” she said.

Echoing the warning that Republican candidates would support national abortion restrictions, Romanos argued “They think they know better than Ohioans. They’re wrong.”

This story was originally published in the Ohio Capital Journal


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