Matt Dolan walks an uncharted path in Ohio’s Republican Senate primary

The Cleveland lawmaker is testing whether he can clinch the GOP nomination without actively courting Trump’s endorsement

Former President Donald Trump has yet to make an endorsement in Ohio’s crowded Republican Senate primary, but there is one candidate who won’t be getting the nod: Ohio state Sen. Matt Dolan.

Hours after he declared his candidacy last Monday, Dolan received a sharply worded rejection letter from the ex-president. “I know of at least one person in the race who I won’t be endorsing,” Trump wrote in a fiery statement issued through his Save America political action committee.

“The Republican Party has too many RINOs!” Trump exclaimed, pejoratively characterizing the GOP hopeful as a “Republican in name only.” 

Not that Dolan was expecting it would go any other way. The 56-year-old state legislator has made it abundantly clear that he isn’t actively seeking Trump’s support — in contrast to the wide assortment of Republican candidates who are now locked in fierce and often obsequious competition for a coveted thumbs-up from the undisputed GOP figurehead.

Dolan, for his part, is staking out something of an uncharted path in the open-seat race to succeed outgoing Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH), a moderate who is retiring at the end of his term in 2022. For one, Dolan wholeheartedly supported the $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure deal negotiated by Portman, in spite of Trump’s vocal opposition to the bill. 

Echoing Trump, the other GOP candidates — including former Ohio State Treasurer Josh Mandel, former state party chair Jane Timken, author and venture capitalist J.D. Vance and Cleveland businessmen Bernie Moreno and Mike Gibbons — all bashed the spending package.

“I can only guess I’m the only person who supported it because President Trump said he wouldn’t endorse anyone who did,” Dolan, who represents suburban Cleveland, said in an interview with Jewish Insider on Friday. “You’ve got to put the best interest of Ohio and the country above politics,” he added, “and my opponents all failed the very first test — that they’re going to follow politics before they follow what’s in the best interest of Ohio.”

In the Democratic primary, two candidates — Rep. Tim Ryan (D-OH), who had a short-lived run for the presidency in 2020, and progressive activist Morgan Harper, a former congressional candidate in Columbus  — are vying for the nomination.

Dolan readily acknowledges that Trump lost the election in 2020, unlike some of his opponents who have avoided accepting the results, and he does not hesitate to point out that he disagreed with the former president on at least some policy matters, such as the negotiated withdrawal from Afghanistan recently enacted by the Biden administration.

On red-meat conservative culture war issues, Dolan takes a somewhat heterodox approach. His family, which owns the Cleveland Indians, announced earlier this summer that the Major League Baseball team will be changing its name to the Guardians next year out of respect for Native Americans who protested the current moniker as offensive. Trump, who has criticized the move as “cancel culture at work,” cited the name change as motivating his opposition to Dolan, who vows on his campaign site to fight against “cancel culture.” 

Matt Dolan

Dolan said he understood the former president’s critique. “But at the end of the day, I think it’s fair to say that Native Americans didn’t find that the name Indians was in any way in support of them,” he told JI. “Because when you talk to Native Americans, they consider themselves Americans, and then they consider themselves Ohioans or Arizonians, and then they consider themselves Erie or Cherokee or Apache.”

He said the new name, after the “Guardians of Traffic” statues that stand on opposing ends of Cleveland’s Hope Memorial Bridge, was one of his “top picks.”

Despite his readiness to part ways with the former president on select issues, Dolan is quick to suggest that he largely approved of the former president’s agenda — even if the feeling isn’t mutual. The two-term state senator and former state representative lists a number of issues on his campaign site that suggest he is in line with the other Republican candidates in substance if not style, employing such terms as “socialist Democrats,” “election integrity,” “critical race theory” and “securing the border.”

Dolan also makes clear that he would not have voted to impeach Trump for inciting the Jan. 6 Capitol riot.

On Israel, there is little to no distance between Dolan and his opponents, who have all expressed their staunch support for the Jewish state. Dolan said he would have voted in favor of providing $1 billion to replenish Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system, as the House did last week after a contentious floor debate between pro-Israel Democrats and those in the party who have been critical of Israeli policies and want to see conditions placed on U.S. aid to the Jewish state. 

“The Iron Dome is essential for Israel to protect itself, to protect its ability to be a stable force in the region,” Dolan told JI, adding: “Any effort that we can make on behalf of securing that relationship and sending the strongest signal that there is no daylight between the United States and Israel is where we need to be.”

The other GOP Senate candidates told JI after the vote that they supported the spending as well.

Still, Dolan’s candidacy represents an unorthodox path in Ohio, where Trump’s base appears to remain energized as he mulls running in the 2024 presidential election.

With little available public polling, it is difficult to assess Dolan’s prospects as he seeks the nomination in next year’s primary. But as a co-owner of the Indians, Dolan is in a strong position to self-fund his campaign, and he is likely to appeal to moderate Republican voters, however significant their support may be, who feel alienated by the Trump wing of the GOP. 

Just two days after he entered the race, Dolan earned an endorsement from the editorial board of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, which wrote that “Dolan has pointedly been differentiating himself from the Trump acolytes now leading the pack of those seeking Portman’s Senate seat on the GOP side.” Dolan’s candidacy, the newspaper said, “should be a call-out to all Ohio Republicans who hope to reclaim the soul of their party to step up and support him.”

But Dolan said it would be misguided to view his Senate bid as a test of Trump’s salience within the Republican Party.

“If we want an America that’s better and we want an Ohio that’s better, then you need somebody like me who’s pushing conservative Republican ideals that have produced results,” he told JI. “That’s what I think this race is about.”

The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Jewish Insider: Why are you running?

Matt Dolan: Two reasons. One is I know I can win, and two, the challenges that are facing us right now, in Ohio and in our country, need somebody like me who has the experience and the results to go to Washington, to fight for Ohio and to get things done for Ohio and for our country. The Biden agenda is killing our economy, our education, our way of life, our standing in the world. So stopping the Biden agenda is important and job one. But I’m the only one in the race that also can put forth what we stand for, what I’ve done in Ohio, and can bring that same work ethic and results to Washington. I believe right now I’m the best person for the job to meet the challenges of today.

JI: You launched a statewide listening tour this summer before you announced your candidacy. What were some of the lessons you took away from that tour in terms of voter concerns?

Dolan: Overwhelmingly, the issues that came up were economic issues and security issues. Republican voters want people to get back to work; they don’t want a government that’s subsidizing people to stay home. When they heard what I was able to accomplish in Ohio, they were excited. Any child has a pathway to career success, whether it’s a four-year degree, whether it’s in the skilled manufacturing and skilled trades or anything in between. That is a successful career, and we need to make sure that kids know that there’s work here — quality work, high-standard-of-living work — and make sure that’s available so employers win and future employees win. 

Security: securing the Southern border. We’ve got to know who’s coming into our country and what they’re bringing. But also security in our neighborhoods. We in the [state] Senate support the police, despite that some communities were defunding them. The state of Ohio provided $15 million for police. At the end of the day, they want somebody to go to Washington and get something done.

JI: You drew some headlines this summer for your support of the bipartisan infrastructure bill negotiated by Portman. All of the leading GOP Senate candidates, echoing Trump, bashed the bill. Did you find that voters were receptive to the bill during your listening tour?

Dolan: I can only guess I’m the only person who supported it because President Trump said he wouldn’t endorse anyone who did. The U.S. senator for Ohio has to fight for Ohioans. Rob Portman negotiated a slimmed-down, very targeted infrastructure bill that will dramatically help Ohio’s economy, and I’m the only one that supported it. How can you say you’re fighting for Ohio when you won’t support an economic development package in Cincinnati? You go to Appalachia and say, “I know you need broadband, but my opponents won’t support it.” You’ve got to put the best interest of Ohio and the country above politics, and my opponents all failed the very first test — that they’re going to follow politics before they follow what’s in the best interest of Ohio.

JI: Trump released a statement the other day saying he wouldn’t be endorsing you, but his reason, somewhat curiously, had nothing to do with the infrastructure package. Instead, he said it was because your family was changing the name of the Cleveland Indians to the Guardians — a sign, he suggested, that your family was bowing to “cancel culture,” which you vow to fight against on your campaign site. What did you make of that?

Dolan: While I understand individually why somebody might be upset about a name change, anyone who’s been in private business knows that there is way more beyond politics [that goes] into a decision like that. And so it is what it is. I guess that’s what I’ll say. 

JI: Do you believe the Indians name change is an example of “cancel culture”? You write on your campaign site that “rights afforded by the Constitution, like freedom of speech and the right to due process, are under attack in our classrooms, town squares and sports stadiums.”

Dolan: Given the timeframe in which it’s happened, I completely understand why that is a talking point. What people won’t understand is that this wasn’t an issue made overnight. This is something that my parents have been talking about with Native American tribes throughout both Arizona and Ohio over the years. We have engaged with them numerous times. We have used some of our merchandise revenue to help support Native American causes both here and in Arizona. But at the end of the day, I think it’s fair to say that Native Americans didn’t find that the name Indians was in any way in support of them. Because when you talk to Native Americans, they consider themselves Americans, and then they consider themselves Ohioans or Arizonians, and then they consider themselves Erie or Cherokee or Apache. 

That is how they see themselves, and that’s what would be honoring to them. The name Indians is a name that the whites gave them when they arrived in the country. While they get the pop culture, if you will, of the name Indians, they don’t think it honors them in any way. So, over a long period of time, and I think with the [NFL’s Washington] Redskins changing their name, the family made a decision after much discussion. But the reality also is, like I said, we are in the business of baseball, and we don’t want free agents coming into Cleveland having to answer political questions. We want them to focus on joining our team and winning a World Series.

JI: Do you like the new name, by the way?

Dolan: It was one of my top picks, sure. Yes. 

JI: Have you ever met Trump or talked to him?

Dolan: I have not, no.

JI: You’re based in suburban Cleveland, which is home to a sizable Jewish population. What connections have you made with Jewish leaders throughout your time in office, and what conversations are you engaging in now that you’re running for Senate?

Dolan: I can tell you this: I would encourage you to go read a letter of support in The Cleveland Jewish News endorsing me, when I ran for reelection to the state Senate, for all the hard work I’ve done on behalf of not just the Jewish community but all of Northeastern Ohio. But in particular, they cited a number of issues — security issues I helped with; medical, nursing home and health and human service issues; supporting Israel with resolutions and things that I will follow through on as a United States senator. I’ve had a great working relationship with the Jewish community in Cleveland in my time. I’ve already had roundtables in the Cincinnati area and the Columbus area with Jewish leaders, and I believe they went very well. I think my passion and results-oriented style is what they’re looking for, and I’m hoping I can earn — collectively and individually — their support.

JI: Do you have any thoughts on the recent Iron Dome vote in the House? One interpretation of the vote was that it confirmed there is widespread bipartisan support for Israel. But some pro-Israel advocates were troubled that a small minority of progressive Democrats opposed the funding so vehemently.

Dolan: To me, that’s very sad and ultimately could be tragic, because we don’t want to send any signal to any terrorist organizations — these are not countries, these are terrorist organizations that are threatening Israel — and we should be saying to Israel, “We unequivocally support your ability to defend yourself and your quality of life.” So any suggestion that America is equivocating on that strong support, it’s just sad. The Iron Dome is essential for Israel to protect itself, to protect its ability to be a stable force in the region. The Abraham Accords have helped Israel and other Arab countries develop trade relationships which would have been unheard of a few years ago. We, of course, want to continue to be a trade partner with Israel. So any effort that we can make on behalf of securing that relationship and sending the strongest signal that there is no daylight between the United States and Israel is where we need to be.

JI: Have you ever visited Israel, either as an elected official or in your own personal capacity?

Dolan: I have not. I would look forward to it. Some of my brothers and sisters have been there, and my parents have been there. But I have not.

JI: You praised the Abraham Accords. You’ve said you voted for Trump twice and it seems as if you largely agree with his policies; despite that, you aren’t courting his endorsement. What aspects of his foreign policy approach did you approve of or disagree with? 

Dolan: Trump was a Republican president who did a lot of good things, and what I’m recognizing is that when Republicans are in charge, our position on the United States and our conservative economic principles are best for our country. So, I think, as President Trump investigates my record, he’ll see that I did a lot of things that are consistent with what he tried to do for the country. 

Now, as it relates to his foreign policy, there are areas of agreement and there are areas of disagreement. I strongly agreed with pulling out of the Iranian nuclear deal, and I would have fought hard to keep the sanctions in place because they were just starting to work, just starting to draw the pressure on that we need to have a real negotiation with Iran. But that deal kept Israel in jeopardy. I strongly agreed with the Abraham Accords. I think President Trump should be applauded for those efforts and the fundamental change in the Middle East when you have real Muslim countries working with Israel. When the economy of the Middle East rises, then maybe these young men and women who, right now, don’t see any other choices in their lives except for listening to Hamas and other terrorist organizations, maybe they’ll look around and say there’s a better path — and that starts with these these types of peace accords, these types of trade agreements.

Where I disagree with President Trump is I’m not an isolationist. I think when the United States withdraws from the world, leadership vacuums get created and they get filled — and they get filled by people who don’t act in the best interests of the United States. I was against pulling out of Afghanistan. I think we should have kept a force there. The tragic way in which we exited was horrible and a sad loss of life. But even if the exit had been orderly, the vacuum would still be created, and now I believe the Middle East and the United States and all Western civilization is in jeopardy from these terrorist organizations. 

I don’t necessarily think that tariffs are the way we’re going to solve the China problem. I think we’ve got to engage in the world. We create trade partners that are different than China — for example, Vietnam, India, Indonesia — and if a company is working in China we incentivize them to come back to the United States or to sign up with a country that will partner with us and make it harder for China to compete.

JI: Are there any concrete actions you can take in the Senate to address the rising incidents of antisemitism we’ve seen in recent years?

Dolan: I met with a series of Jewish leaders in Columbus yesterday, and it’s very sad to hear that they’re facing that in the year 2021. Not only can I do things, I have done things. I’ve worked with the Jewish community. We have established security grants that are developed to go to harden synagogues and schools and to make sure that people feel secure when they go to their place of worship. I got them in the budget two years ago, and I just extended them for two more years in this current budget. If I’m in the United States Senate, I would follow the lead of Rob Portman, who has also been able to draw federal dollars to make sure that places of worship, including synagogues, are protected. With the realities of today, we need to do that. I also believe education is a huge part of ending this cycle of bigotry. Myself and a lot of legislators, we created the Holocaust Commission, and I got the money to fund it in the budget to make sure that people understand the story and understand what a travesty [Jews] faced and how individuals overcame it.

JI: What did you make of the recent decision by Ohio Rep. Anthony Gonzalez not to seek reelection rather than face a Trump-backed primary challenger in the midterms? What do you think his decision portends for the future of Republican politics in Ohio and, more broadly, across the country?

Dolan: Well, I do think Anthony made the wrong vote [on impeachment]. I don’t think there was constitutional evidence to support impeachment. I would not have made that vote. I do think Anthony Gonzalez has been a solid conservative but practical legislator who is good for Ohio and good for our country. His decision not to run is personal to him.

JI: You’ve described the events of Jan. 6 as a “failure of leadership,” but you’re saying you wouldn’t have voted for impeachment. You’ve also said you don’t believe the election was stolen, contrary to a number of your opponents who have refused to acknowledge that Trump lost. Have your views on the election caused any tension with voters in Ohio, who largely still seem energized by Trump?

Dolan: Jan. 6 was a horrible day for America. The individuals who committed the crime should be punished. There’s a recognition of the peaceful transfer of power and that we have a court system to challenge any irregularities — and that’s what makes us the greatest country on the earth, that we have a peaceful transfer of power but we also have a system already in place to challenge that in a civil, open, transparent way. That’s why I’m disappointed for Jan. 6. My focus is on 2022 to get the majority to stop the Biden agenda. And, I think, when I travel the state and will continue to travel the state, when I tell [voters] where my focus and energy is, it is to make sure that we stop the bleeding, as you will, from Biden and focus on what we can do and provide alternatives to Ohioans and Americans, where Republican ideals can lead us and how they are better for economic growth and for quality of life and to make people feel safe and secure. So it is not just enough to be against something; we’ve got to be for something.

JI: You were a registered Democrat before switching your party affiliation to Republican in 1994. How do you feel the GOP has changed since you joined its ranks more than 25 years ago, and how do you feel like you fit into it now as compared with then?

Dolan: I was a lot younger then. I did become a Republican in 1994, but I didn’t run for office for another decade, so it’s not like I switched for any selfish reasons. I switched because, at a young age, I understood that Republican ideals are about helping the individual achieve his or her best potential, and that there is a level and a role that government plays in that, but it’s a role of assistance, not dependence. And for the most part, over the years, the Republican Party has stayed true to that, and I would argue that the Democratic Party has moved even further to this idea that government creates a dependent class and that your lifestyle is dependent on how much government can give you or do for you. So, the bulk of that decision remains the same and consistent. And, you know, maybe a little more controversial is [that], as I understood and began to understand and talk about abortion, pro-life became my position. And that’s more consistent with the Republican platform.

JI: Does that have to do at all with your Catholic faith?

Dolan: It definitely had to do with my Catholic faith and listening to my mother and my sister talking about the issue with me, and maybe even more personal: My son’s mother and my wife at the time, we had a miscarriage, and that had a dramatic impact on me as to what life really means.

JI: Does your faith inform your political views in any other way?

Dolan: No, I think it probably has more of an impact on my style. My mom has always told us, “Listen for God in everything you do.” So it’s hard for me to just go on the personality attack with somebody who disagrees with me if it actually might be a message of God because he speaks to us in many different ways. So I think it has more of an impact on my style. I don’t see this as a bloodsport. It’s very, very competitive. It’s very tough. I’ve been a lawyer for 30 years. I’ve been in business for 22 years and public service for 15. Those are all very difficult businesses where you have to be tough. You just don’t have to destroy the personality of the other side. And I have been very successful in all three without leaving a trail of destruction of personalities behind me. So I think my faith has dictated that more than my public positions.

JI: Are you alluding to some of the other candidates in the race — in particular Josh Mandel, who has made a number of inflammatory comments as he seeks the nomination?

Dolan: Yeah. I think tone and rhetoric is not a substitute for results and good policy. And my focus is always on results and good policy. Whether I shout it or I just work quietly very hard, the result is the same: It’s better for Ohio. Just talking loud and calling people names is not public policy.

JI: There are a number of issues listed on your campaign site that overlap with the other Republican candidates in the race, including “cancel culture,” “socialist Democrats,” “election integrity,” “critical race theory,” “securing the border.” Would you agree that, barring any stylistic differences, there are areas in which you and your opponents share common ground?

Dolan: I think there’s a lot of areas in which we have common ground. I think we all agree that the Southern border is a crisis that needs to be addressed, and Biden has been a failure. What I say is, it’s not the ideas that Biden is screwing up on, it’s who can execute on fixing those issues and promoting what we stand for. So, for instance, in 2017, Republicans had the White House, the Senate and the House. Yet, in four years, we couldn’t get an immigration policy into law. We had to rely on President Trump’s executive order. Why is that? We have no one to blame but ourselves. We couldn’t get it finished. My point is, you better send somebody to Washington who knows how to execute on ideals and get it into law so that we have permanent stability at our border and any other areas. We didn’t get an infrastructure bill done when we controlled the House, Senate and the White House. You can’t just send people who just talk. You’ve got to send people who’ve had the results, the success and can execute on our good ideas.

JI: You’ve said that you don’t believe the last presidential election was stolen, but you list “election integrity” as an issue on your campaign website. What is your concern there?

Dolan: I don’t worry a whole lot about Ohio. I think Ohio’s elections have been very solid, very safe, very secure and very accurate. What I do worry about, though, is that other states follow the model that Ohio has implemented so that the confidence in individuals’ votes stays where it is or increases. That’s why election integrity is important; it’s that people need to know that their vote counts. And also, it’s a state issue. This should not be run by the federal government. So I am totally against what the Democrats are trying to push through in Congress, that somehow we’re going to federalize our elections. Ohio is a model, other states should follow it, people’s confidence will increase, our elections can still be the hallmark of the world, and we can elect our leaders and have a peaceful transfer.

JI: Do you view this race at all as a test of Trump’s influence within the party, given the fact that you’re not seeking his endorsement?

Dolan: No, I see this race as Republican ideas and conservative principles that I have pushed and been successful [at implementing] are better for Ohio. And if we want an America that’s better and we want an Ohio that’s better, then you need somebody like me who’s pushing conservative Republican ideals that have produced results. That’s what I think this race is about.

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