Buckeye Battle

Bernie Moreno’s sales pitch

The Cleveland entrepreneur looks to distinguish himself from the frontrunners in a crowded GOP Senate primary to replace Sen. Rob Portman

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Despite his reputation as a prominent Republican donor, Bernie Moreno, the Cleveland car dealer and blockchain technology entrepreneur, appeared to be operating at a significant disadvantage when he jumped into Ohio’s crowded Senate race this spring, joining a growing number of candidates jockeying to succeed outgoing Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH), who is retiring in 2022.

Vowing to crack down on such conservative bugaboos as socialism and cancel culture in his debut ad, “Buckle Up,” the first-time candidate seemed at pains to distinguish himself from leading GOP primary contenders Josh Mandel and Jane Timken — the former Ohio state treasurer and Republican state party chair, respectively — who have put forth almost identical messages and are well-known across the state.

But Moreno, 54, took the political world by surprise last month as he revealed that his campaign had pulled in a sizable haul of $2.25 million in contributions — more than any candidate in the race aside from Mike Gibbons, the Cleveland-based investment banker who is largely self-funding. J.D. Vance, the conservative author and venture capitalist, did not report his fundraising numbers because he entered the race after the most recent filing deadline.

“I’ve worked my whole life with one simple motto,” Moreno boasted in an interview with Jewish Insider on Wednesday. “I will always out-work, out-hustle and out-think my opponents.”

Moreno, a native of Colombia who immigrated to the United States at the age of 5 and ultimately made his fortune as a car dealership magnate, projected confidence that his personal story will give him an edge as he competes for the rare open Senate seat that Democrats are eyeing as a potential pick-up in next year’s midterms.

“I’m connecting with voters, and it’s the Democrats’ worst nightmare, honestly,” Moreno argued. “Think about it. The Democrats have this narrative that says Ohio is primarily made up of a bunch of white supremacist, racist hillbillies who hate every ethnic group in the world and are afraid of them. But wouldn’t it be something when they elect a senator to represent them in D.C. who was born in Colombia, South America, who had to learn English, who had to become a U.S. citizen. It kind of breaks that narrative apart.”

But the overwhelming narrative revolves around former President Donald Trump as the candidates have all repeatedly expressed their vociferous support for the ostensible GOP kingmaker, who remains deeply popular throughout the Buckeye State. Trump has yet to make an endorsement as he has done in other races across the country, and it is unclear if he will.

While Moreno was critical of the former president during his first campaign in 2015, he claims to have evolved and now describes Trump, in the hyperbolic manner typical of Republican primary candidates, as “the most conservative president we’ve ever had.” 

The Cleveland businessman employs a number of Trump allies on his campaign, including Kellyanne Conway, a former White House advisor, and Lana Marks, the former U.S. ambassador to South Africa. Moreno’s daughter Emily, who served on Trump’s re-election campaign, is also advising. She is engaged to Max Miller, the scion of a politically connected Jewish family in Shaker Heights and a former Trump aide who, with an endorsement from the former president, is running to unseat Rep. Anthony Gonzalez (R-OH) following his impeachment vote in February. Emily will be converting to Judaism for the marriage, Moreno informed JI. “I’m very proud of her for doing that.”

In conversation with JI, Moreno — who says he “would be the first United States senator that would have come from the retail automotive business” — discussed his game plan as he heads into what is expected to be one the most hotly contested Republican primary contests of the coming cycle. 

The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Jewish Insider: You’re a first-time political candidate. You’ve had a long, successful career in the private sector, most notably as a car dealer but also, more recently, as a blockchain technology entrepreneur. Why did you decide to jump into this race now?

Bernie Moreno: It’s pretty straightforward. I was born in Colombia, South America. I came here as a kid, legally. Learned English. Became a U.S. citizen. And this country gave me every opportunity on earth to succeed. It’s a very special country, and I see this country heading in a very, very bad direction. I’d say we’re heading over a cliff, and it’s the same cliff that most countries have fallen over, whether it’s authoritarianism, socialism, communism, Marxism — it’s all the same. I saw that in Venezuela, I saw that in Cuba, we’re seeing it in Peru, obviously China and Russia — two countries that I’ve been to. It’s the same situation.

Between now and the last two or three decades, we really took a hard swing to the left, and what I see is that D.C. is completely broken. It’s broken because we keep sending the same kinds of people to D.C. — people who have accomplished nothing in their lives, who all they do is talk, they say one thing and do another. I didn’t want to just be angry about it, so [I] decided to put the jersey on and jump in the arena. 

JI: Had you ever considered running for office before this race?

Moreno: I met Ambassador Ric Grenell about a decade ago, and he’s someone who encouraged me to run for Senate when I first met him. I knew other people who had said that to me, but I never really considered it seriously, only because I’m a relatively private person; my wife is an extremely private person. I enjoy being an entrepreneur, I enjoy creating businesses, I enjoy creating opportunities for people. And I really thought that there would be others who would take care of business, so to speak, in D.C., but what I’ve concluded is that there’s not. 

JI: You’re running in a crowded field with a lot of formidable candidates. What gives you an edge in the primary next year?

Moreno: Politics is interesting to me because I really consider it a job interview, and in a typical job interview, you not only talk about what you’re going to do — and certainly that’s maybe 10% of a job interview — but 90% of a job interview, at least in the normal world and not in the political world, is what have you done in the past. So if you say to me how am I going to stand out, well, we’re all probably going to be equally outraged around the things that Biden has done — Afghanistan, energy inflation, all of those things. The border, for sure. The difference is, where’s the track record of having accomplished things? And there’s no question, with myself and my opponents in this race, that there’s just no comparison between my track record of success, what I’ve done in taking hard positions, and them. 

JI: You have a number of Trump allies in your camp. Grenell has endorsed you. Kellyanne Conway is advising your campaign. Lana Marks recently joined your steering committee. But do you expect Trump to make an endorsement in this race, and if so, do you think he’ll give you the nod?

Moreno: When I met the president back in March, he asked me my opinion on that, and I directly answered his question, which is that, at the time, he should not make an endorsement, he should let us do the hard work of raising money, connecting with voters, traveling the state, and really seeking the most important endorsement of all, which is the endorsement of the 11.5 million people of Ohio. And it looks like he took that advice. Nobody knows what he’ll do or when he’ll do it except for him. That’s the way he likes it. And the reality is I’m not obsessed with that. Obviously, I would love his endorsement — of course. But I’m focused on making sure that I connect with the people of Ohio, that they get to know me, and I think he will do what he wants to do when he wants to do it — as it should be. 

JI: You expressed harsh criticism of Trump when he was running for president five years ago, as private emails published by NBC News revealed not long after you announced your candidacy. But your views seem to have evolved since then. How did you come around to supporting him?

Moreno: Well, let’s clear that up. Here’s the situation. In 2015, of all the people running for president, the only candidate I really knew well was John Kasich, and I wasn’t going to support him in a presidential, so I was shopping. I like to use the term from my previous career. And Josh Mandel was somebody I knew; I had supported him in 2012. He said to me, “Hey, listen, I know you’re not going to support Kasich, I want you to meet Marco Rubio.” So I met Sen. Rubio, got to know him, liked him. We connected, for obvious reasons. I loved his depth of knowledge on issues. So we went all in with Marco. I raised over $1 million for him here in Ohio — and I’m proud of the fact that he donated to my campaign last quarter. Really good guy. 

In 2015, there was another candidate — Donald Trump. I didn’t know anything about Donald Trump other than what I saw on TV. I thought he was a liberal. I thought he was a Democrat. I thought he was somebody who I saw pictures of with Hillary Clinton and Chuck Schumer. I thought he was somebody who was not a serious candidate, who was making a mockery of the Republican primary. But I kept my mouth shut publicly, and when he was emerging as the nominee, I wrote a personal private email to a fundraiser for the Republican National Committee, and she asked me which candidate I was going to support after Marco dropped out. I said that Trump was a lunatic and a maniac and I didn’t think he was a conservative.

But I’ll tell you this, when President Trump became our nominee, I was at the convention. I was there every day. We hosted people in Cleveland. I had a boat at the time. We took people out. I was fully supportive of President Trump. And I was wrong. He was the most conservative president we’ve ever had.

JI: In terms of statewide campaigning, how are you working to connect with voters and boost your name recognition as you go up against some candidates — like Josh Mandel, who’s won statewide office, and Jane Timken, the former state party chair — who probably have a built-in advantage because of that exposure? 

Moreno: The second kind of funny thing about politics — versus the normal world, as I call it — is that there’s this idea that you have to lose to win, that you have to fail upward. I’d never heard of such a thing in the business world. It’s very odd. Listen, the way I focus my attention is connecting with voters with common sense messages, being able to talk about issues the right way. What I won’t do is stupid things or publicity stunts to get attention. That’s just not who I am. I think voters are sick of that stuff. They don’t like it. They want to see real people doing real things and solving the problems that they see every single day. They don’t want people to be loud and obnoxious. I just won’t do that. 

When I bought my first dealership, I sold four cars a month. When I sold the dealership, I was selling 3,500 cars a year. I did that through connecting with clients, providing better client service than any industry, period — forget car dealerships — and making certain that we advertised very effectively in what I call a surround-sound way. 

That’s what I’ll do in this campaign. I think, as voters get to know me, they’ll know that I’m a serious person, that I have a serious track record, and that I’m doing this for Ohio, not for myself, and I think they’ll see that when they contrast me with my opponents. When somebody’s chased a title and a position so many times, you’ve got to ask, is it really about doing the right thing for the country, or is it really about getting a job for yourself to make money in the future? I’m doing it for the reasons that I said earlier. This country gave me every opportunity on earth. My first grandbaby was born an hour after I announced my campaign. This is about providing an America for her that my mom and dad saw for me. I will fight to make that happen. I’m not doing this for publicity, fortune or fame. 

JI: Your comments would seem to be directed at Mandel, who has run for statewide office a number of times and continues to cause a stir thanks to his provocative social media presence. Is that a fair conclusion?

Moreno: I don’t like to speak ill about anyone by name. I think voters don’t like that. They know what I’m talking about when they see not just one opponent that you may have mentioned but others who use trigger words or say and do things to try to get attention. It’s just an unfortunate state of where we’re at as a country. It’s not what America is about. We should be an aspirational, forward-thinking, hopeful nation that is looking to the future and not trying to create artificial divisions between people. It’s not healthy, and I won’t do that. 

JI: You recently reported a sizable fundraising haul of $2.25 million in outside contributions, more than any other candidate in the race. How did you pull that off, and do you feel as if you can sustain that momentum heading into future quarters?

Moreno: First, like you said, that’s without any of my own money yet. I’m not going to telegraph to my opponents or anybody else what I’m willing to put in — they have to keep guessing. Secondly, I’m not taking corporate or union PAC money. There’s a lot of opponents in this race who talk about “woke corporations” and how bad they are and how they’re doing the wrong thing and “these big corporations are a mess.” Yet they take their money. So to me that’s very, very, contradictory; it’s hypocritical. I’m calling on all of my opponents to return the corporate and union PAC money that they’ve taken and be consistent. Your rhetoric has to match your actions, and if it doesn’t then the voters are going to see you for what you are, which is a hypocrite. 

In terms of how I did it, I’ve worked my whole life with one simple motto: I will always out-work, out-hustle and out-think my opponents. So we have to do it the hard way. The maximum contribution is $5,800 per person. I think there’s a lot of talk in this race about polls, which are obviously nonsense because no poll that exists today is going to tell you anything actionable other than that they recognize the name from somebody who’s run 12 times or somebody who’s on Fox News every single night. That’s obvious. What the real poll is who’s willing to write a check to invest in a campaign after having met somebody. And if you look at that poll, that’s where I really stood out last quarter, and we’re going to continue to do that right up to the general election next year. 

I think my message is compelling, I think I have a great story to tell, I think I’m connecting with voters, and it’s the Democrats’ worst nightmare, honestly. Think about it. The Democrats have this narrative that says Ohio is primarily made up of a bunch of white supremacist, racist hillbillies who hate every ethnic group in the world and are afraid of them. But wouldn’t it be something when they elect a senator to represent them in D.C. who was born in Colombia, South America, who had to learn English, who had to become a U.S. citizen. It kind of breaks that narrative apart.

JI: You were born in Bogotá and moved with your family to South Florida when you were 5, in 1971. What do you remember of your upbringing in Colombia?

Moreno: We traveled back to Colombia a lot when I was growing up, from age 5 to 18 when I left for college. We saw the country deteriorate before our eyes. It was very sad. We saw countless relatives, friends, acquaintances who were kidnapped, many who were killed, because of the drug war. It was terrible. But what I also saw, which stuck with me and continues to stick with me today, is the demographic change in South Florida from 1971-85. I can’t tell you how many people I ran into for whom it was the same story: “We left our home,” “we left everything behind,” “we risked everything to come to America because we had a government that was imprisoning us for our beliefs that was taking away our businesses, taking away our rights.” 

And, of course, I’m talking about Cuba. I met so many Cuban families that transformed Miami in such a positive way, and then as an adult in college and beyond, met so many people from Venezuela. I was always envious of Venezuela — wealthier, more educated, they even had the more beautiful women. And to see that go from a shining example of what a South American country could be to a complete and utter failed state was so shocking to me as an adult, but it was the same story I remembered as a kid growing up that I saw from Cuba. 

Like I said earlier, we’re going to see the exact same thing in Peru, and when I visited China and Russia — same vibe, same feeling. That you’re constantly being watched, that you’re constantly being told what to do. You have to watch every word. When I was in China my first time, my tour guide — because I like to joke around — pulled me aside and said please stop making those jokes, we could be arrested and go to jail. I kept saying, “When do we get to visit the country of Taiwan?” That was my offense, that you could legitimately go to jail for calling Taiwan a country, and that is not something I think Amercians viscerally understand — what it’s like to live in an environment like that.

JI: You put out a press release earlier this summer touting support from “prominent auto dealers” around the country. That seems like a unique base.

Moreno: I would be the first United States senator that would have come from the retail automotive business. I think car dealers are the quintessential entrepreneurs. We know how to work hard. We know how to hustle. We know how to balance a lot of different variables. Most people don’t realize car dealerships are really five or six businesses all under one roof, so we have experience in a lot of different areas. We’re typically very politically active, and we’re also typically very, very tied into our local community. There’s a lot of issues coming up before the federal government in the next decade around auto dealers — the future of auto retailing, the push toward electrification and autonomous vehicles, obviously what the franchise itself means. I think I’ve been able to connect with that group.

JI: Can you describe the relationships you’ve built with Jewish community members in Cleveland, and are you engaged in any outreach to Jewish leaders or pro-Israel advocates in Ohio as you embark on this campaign?

Moreno: Let me do the second one first. The idea of Jewish outreach is, to me, for most political candidates very artificial. I haven’t done Israel or Jewish outreach; I’ve been ingrained in the community for as long as I can remember. My friends growing up in South Florida were predominantly Jewish. I went to a private school at which I’d say 60-70% of the students were Jewish. I’ve gone to more bar mitzvahs than most. When I moved to Andover, Mass., my wife taught preschool at the temple down the street. All my kids went to that temple preschool. I would say that my wife would win in Jewish trivia versus 95% of Jewish Americans. 

Here in Cleveland, where we have an amazing Jewish community, I’ve been part of that community since the day I got to Cleveland. I’m somebody who’s traveled to Israel many times. To me, somebody who’s a serious candidate for the United States Senate who has not visited Israel is a disqualifying factor for that person. I can’t even imagine you having the audacity to say, “Hey, I’m going to represent Ohio in the United States Senate, I haven’t even taken the time in my life to ever visit our most important ally in the Middle East.” To me that’s totally disqualifying. 

But beyond visiting Israel, I’ve brought delegations from Israel to Cleveland to bring them with non-Jewish people to invest in Israeli tech companies. I think it’s incredibly important for us to entangle our relationship with Israel on the financial side. I’ve also brought Israeli companies to Ohio and encouraged them to headquarter here. I’ve invested millions of dollars in Israeli tech companies because I think it’s important for us as Americans to have that entangled relationship and really understand the true dynamic of what that is. 

I’m also proud that my second daughter is getting married to Max Miller, and she’s going to be converting to Judaism. I’m very proud of her for doing that. 

JI: Max Miller, who is soon to be your son-in-law, is now running to unseat Rep. Anthony Gonzalez in suburban Cleveland. You previously supported Gonzalez but now take a critical view of him since he voted to impeach Trump in February.

Moreno: I supported Anthony when he first ran and when he ran for reelection. What he did by voting to impeach Donald Trump is an inexcusable mistake. I don’t think he voted his conscience. I think what he did is he took a bet that the Republican Party was going to move on beyond Trump and he wanted to be at the forefront of that — and he made a really bad decision and was wrong. And the voters are extraordinarily upset with him — rightfully so. He betrayed them. So I wasn’t going to support Anthony no matter what. The fact that Max happens to be the candidate who’s running — I’ve gotten to know Max really well. I met him back in 2015-16 in the Rubio campaign. Of course, I vetted him. I’m in his district. I vetted him as a father as well. He’s a man of incredible values and morals, strength, courage and intelligence, and he will 100% win this race. It’s not even a question. I fully support him and everything that he’s doing. 

JI: Last month, a deeply reported Politico piece detailed a number of troubling allegations about Miller’s past aggressive behavior, including a recent instance of domestic abuse and a violent incident dating back to his high school years. How did you view that article? Does it give you concern?

Moreno: I bifurcate two different things. Listen, the day I met him, Max told me about what his life was like when he was a kid — 18, 19, 20 years old. If any of us had to be judged by our worst moments in our lives, I don’t think any of us would do very well. The Bible teaches not to judge others and to not throw stones in glass houses, and listen, Max’s story is a great story. I love his story. I told him that. I said, you shouldn’t be ashamed of what happened to you when you were in college. You should embrace that. You’re the story of redemption. Here’s a guy that was obviously seeing some troubles, wasn’t finding his way when was a kid, a teenager going into college, and turned his life around, served our country, worked for President Trump, and he wouldn’t be the man he is today had he not gone through that hardship. So I tell him all the time, I say, Max, you should embrace the heck out of that because it made you the man that you are today, which I’m very proud of. 

In terms of the recent allegations, listen, this is what drives me crazy about politics. You can make an allegation about something or somebody, you can put their name through the mud, and there’s zero ramifications for any accuracy or truth to that. Those allegations are totally and completely false. It’s disgusting that people can make those charges for political revenge or commentary. It’s not right. I’ve told Max, listen, just don’t pay attention to that stuff. I know what’s in your heart. I’ve seen you close up and personal, and I wish people will see the Max that I know. I am so happy that my daughter has met him, and they’re going to have an amazing life together. He’s going to be the father of my grandkids, and I couldn’t be happier to call him my son-in-law.

JI: You mention in your first ad that you support term limits. Any sense of how long you’d plan to stay in the Senate if you’re elected?

Moreno: Oh, 100%, please keep this tape handy: I will run for reelection once and once only. I will serve 12 years and go home. Like I said, play this tape every day forever and ever and ever if I don’t hold that pledge. I will. I think it’s important for us to have new fresh blood and fresh thinking in Washington, D.C.

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