Trump favorites Moreno and Merrin win GOP primaries to face 2 vulnerable Ohio Democrats this fall

FILE - Senate Banking Committee Chairman Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, speaks with reporters at the Capitol in Washington, March 15, 2023. Republicans are watching two hot-button federal races in Ohio on Tuesday, March 19, 2024, that could affect their chances for potentially pivotal pickups this fall. One is the Republican primary to face Brown this fall. Brown is considered among the year's most vulnerable Democrats. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

FILE – Senate Banking Committee Chairman Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, speaks with reporters at the Capitol in Washington, March 15, 2023. Republicans are watching two hot-button federal races in Ohio on Tuesday, March 19, 2024, that could affect their chances for potentially pivotal pickups this fall. One is the Republican primary to face Brown this fall. Brown is considered among the year’s most vulnerable Democrats. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Things went former President Donald Trump’s way on Tuesday in a pair of high-profile elections in Ohio that could determine Republicans’ chances of picking up critical seats this fall and expanding their power in Washington.

In the bruising and expensive primary to face Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown this fall, voters chose Trump-backed Cleveland businessman Bernie Moreno over state Sen. Matt Dolan and Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose. In northwest Ohio, state Rep. Derek Merrin prevailed over former state Rep. Craig Riedel a day after Trump endorsed him. Merrin will face longtime U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur in November’s general election.

Both Brown and Kaptur are considered among the year’s most vulnerable Democrats, amid Ohio’s tack to the political right in recent years. With Democrats holding a narrow voting majority in the Senate and Republicans maintaining a thin margin in the U.S. House, both races have already drawn outsized attention from national party leaders.

Moreno used his acceptance speech in Cleveland to shower praise on Trump, as well as to commend Dolan and LaRose on campaigns well run. He called on the party to unify to defeat Brown.

“We have an opportunity now to retire the old commie, and send him to a retirement home and save this country, because that’s what we’re going to do,” Moreno told a cheering crowd.

He called Brown President Joe Biden’s “absolute enabler” in the Senate and liberal Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s “lapdog.”

Brown responded to the news on X: “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. I’ll always work for Ohio.”

The general election fight is expected to be fierce in a state that has trended Republican in recent years. With Democrats holding a tenuous 51-49 voting majority in the Senate but defending more seats than Republicans, Brown’s seat is a top GOP target. He is the lone Democrat holding a non-judicial statewide office in Ohio, a state that has moved steadily to the right during the Trump era.

In a move that drew bipartisan rebukes, Senate Majority PAC, an independent group aligned with Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, spent $2.7 million to elevate Moreno’s primary bid, with the idea that he would be the weakest against Brown this fall.

Brown is expected to make abortion rights a cornerstone of his campaign. In the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s 2022 decision overturning the constitutional right to an abortion, Ohioans strongly supported a state constitutional amendment last year to protect access to the procedure.

Moreno, a former luxury car dealer and blockchain entrepreneur, weathered controversy late in the campaign.

The Associated Press reported last week that in 2008, someone with access to Moreno’s work email account created a profile on an adult website seeking “Men for 1-on-1 sex.” The AP could not definitively confirm that it was created by Moreno himself. Moreno’s lawyer said a former intern created the account and provided a statement from the intern, Dan Ricci, who said he created the account as “part of a juvenile prank.”

Questions about the profile have circulated in GOP circles for the past month, sparking frustration among senior Republican operatives about Moreno’s potential vulnerability in a general election, according to seven people who are directly familiar with conversations about how to address the matter. They requested anonymity to avoid running afoul of Trump and his allies.

Moreno, a native of Bogota, Colombia, who partially funded his own campaign, rode to victory after casting himself as a political outsider, who — like Trump — would go to Washington to shake things up. He and allied political action committees pilloried Dolan and LaRose as “career politicians.”

As LaRose struggled for a lane after failing to win Trump’s endorsement, Dolan worked to consolidate the party’s non-Trump faction in his corner in the runup to Election Day. He was helped in that effort with endorsements from Gov. Mike DeWine and former U.S. Sen. Rob Portman, two of Ohio’s most prominent establishment Republicans.

In his Tuesday concession speech, Dolan described not winning as a “gut punch” but thanked Portman and DeWine for their support.

“To have the quality of Rob Portman and the quality of Mike DeWine to look at this race and say they’re willing to put their years of experience behind me, you know, it’s a sad loss tonight,” he told the crowd in Cleveland. “But it’s a personal pride that Rob and Mike DeWine reached out for me.”

LaRose, a former state senator and Green Beret elected twice statewide, raised more in grassroots donations of $200 or less than either of his rivals. He loaned himself $250,000, compared to $4.2 million Moreno loaned his own campaign and a whopping $9 million Dolan loaned his.

“I knew that this was going to be a difficult right from the beginning, but I’m not somebody that ever backs down from a challenge,” he said. “And so we put our heart and soul into this fight, and I have no regrets.”

Both Moreno and Dolan also competed in the 2022 Senate race, a messy and crowded contest won by Trump-backed memoirist and venture capitalist JD Vance. Moreno dropped out of the primary at Trump’s behest; Dolan finished third. Vance went on to win the general election that year against Democratic U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan.

In Ohio’s 9th Congressional District held by Kaptur, the longest-serving woman in Congress, Trump’s endorsement of Merrin on Monday was the final twist for a months-long roller coaster ride of a contest. The race included swift entries and exits, candidate gaffes and bouncing endorsements. At one point, Vance, House Speaker Mike Johnson and Rep. Jim Jordan, a vocal Trump ally, were aligned with three competing campaigns.

Things settled down when Trump-aligned candidate J.R. Majewski, who lost badly to Kaptur in 2022, abruptly left the race earlier this month amid pushback for remarks he made disparaging Special Olympics athletes.

That left three candidates in the race: Merrin, backed by Johnson — and, as of Monday, Trump; Riedel, backed by Jordan; and former Napoleon Mayor Steve Lankenau.

Merrin, 37, is a term-limited fourth-term state representative who led an intraparty rebellion in the Ohio House last year after losing a bitter battle for speaker. He joined the congressional race on the filing deadline after audio that surfaced of Riedel criticizing Trump began raising concerns inside the party about Riedel’s electability.

Riedel, 57, was among candidates who lost the nomination to Majewski in 2022. He raised more than $1.1 million headed into primary day, the highest of any candidate and some 10 times more than Merrin. But Merrin has benefited from help from national Republicans, with the Congressional Leadership Fund spending more than $750,000 on his behalf.

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Associated Press writer Brian Slodysko in Washington contributed to this report.

AP Politics

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