Matt Dolan’s second shot at the Senate

Dolan was first out of the gate in announcing that he would run for the seat held by Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH)

During the last election cycle, Matt Dolan, a Republican state senator in Ohio, took his time weighing a bid for the U.S. Senate, embarking on a statewide listening tour as a prelude to launching his campaign to succeed retired Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH), a like-minded moderate conservative. Dolan, who jumped into the race months after his opponents had declared their candidacies, ultimately finished third in the Republican primary.

The 58-year-old state legislator from suburban Cleveland is now moving at a swifter pace as he seeks to position himself for a more favorable outcome in 2024. Earlier this week, Dolan was first out of the gate in announcing that he would run for the seat held by Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH), a three-term Democratic incumbent and former longtime congressman who is expected to face a competitive reelection campaign.

“I think I have a record that I can prosecute Sherrod Brown’s case and also say, ‘Here’s what I’ve done,’” Dolan, who chairs the Ohio Senate’s finance committee, said in an interview with Jewish Insider on Thursday. “Though I haven’t spent 30 years in Washington, in my shorter period of time in Columbus I’ve been able to get things done.”

He argued that Brown’s record in Washington is “out of step and out of touch with Ohio,” citing recent remarks in which the senator claimed that he does not “hear much about immigration from voters, except for people on the far right.” 

To Dolan, such comments were dismissive of what he regards as a pressing matter. “Our southern border is a security issue, it’s a humanitarian crisis, and it’s an economic issue,” he told JI. “How are we going to solve those problems if our senator doesn’t even recognize those problems?”

A spokesperson for Brown’s office did not respond to a request for comment from JI.

As much as Dolan takes issue with Brown’s leadership, however, he also believes the GOP has suffered from its own self-inflicted wounds that contributed to an especially dismal performance in the midterms, where Republican losses in crucial swing states such as Georgia and Pennsylvania cost the party a coveted majority in the upper chamber.

Even as recent voting trends in Ohio have favored Republican candidates for statewide office, Dolan warned that the results of the last election should serve as a cautionary tale as Republican leaders begin enlisting recruits for the coming cycle.

“When, nationally, Republicans nominated candidates who were looking to the past, they lost,” he said. “As a result of losing, we didn’t gain the majority. In fact, we lost ground in the Senate and we barely have a majority in the House. That frustrates me that that’s what we’re doing because we can’t change some of these problems.”

In his last race, Dolan distinguished himself as the lone Republican candidate who claimed he was uninterested in courting an endorsement from former President Donald Trump. J.D. Vance, the Republican who nabbed Trump’s support, won the primary by a wide margin and went on to claim victory in the general election by an even slimmer one. He was sworn into the Senate earlier this month. 

Dolan made no indication that he is eager to win Trump’s backing in his second campaign, even as he has looked positively upon some of the former president’s achievements, particularly in the Middle East.

In the interview with JI, he cast himself as a fiscal conservative who is in favor of “low taxes,” “limited government,” “less regulation” and “educational choice,” among other things. “These are all Republican truisms,” he said, “and I believe I have a conservative record.”

Still, Dolan suggested that the conservative label as he sees it has been diluted in a party where such issues have frequently taken a back seat to culture war debates, partisan flamethrowing and conspiracy theories espoused by hard-right lawmakers who have gained prominence in both chambers of Congress.

“What does that mean anymore?” he said. “What is a conservative? Is it loyalty to a person? Is it you have to just be louder than the next person to be more conservative? I don’t know. But I do know this, that if we don’t elect Republicans, like me, who want to go and engage and implement these conservative principles, we’re going to go backwards.”

With well over a year until the primary, Dolan so far has the lane to himself, but the field is likely to grow in the coming months as a number of potential GOP challengers are reportedly mulling bids of their own, including Bernie Moreno, a Cleveland businessman who briefly ran for Senate last year. (He did not respond to a text message from JI seeking comment.)

Dolan, whose family owns the Cleveland Guardians baseball team, has indicated that he will self-fund as he did last cycle, when he spent $11 million on his campaign. 

Dolan has served in the Ohio Senate since 2017 and before that spent five years as a state representative. After his defeat in the Republican primary last summer — where he benefited from a late polling surge in the final weeks of the race that caught some election forecasters by surprise — he launched a new super PAC, Ohio Matters, to boost traditional conservative candidates like himself.

He also took his first trip to Israel in August last year on a week-long state senate delegation focused on the country’s innovation economy as well as potential partnerships with Ohio. Dolan said he was impressed with “the economic opportunities that Israel is developing” and how business leaders he met in Tel Aviv are “taking a lead in technology.”

“Because of its size, for these investments to pay off, they have to be able to scale them worldwide,” he said. “So it’s really, really interesting that Israelis are truly into relationship-building, because that helps the entrepreneurs who are there.”

Dolan said he arrived in Israel a day before Palestinian militants had fired rockets into Israel from Gaza. “Then the day after I left Israel, there was a terrorist attack [near] the Western Wall,” he told JI. “You begin to understand the daily concern and diligence that Israelis have to live with.”

His own experience visiting the Western Wall in Jerusalem, he told JI, was more positive. “We had the opportunity to go up on a roof at the Western Wall, and we could see people praying at the Western Wall and we could see the Muslim prayers going on on the other side of the wall,” Dolan recalled. “You start to realize, we shouldn’t be all that far apart.”

Howie Beigelman, executive director of the nonprofit Ohio Jewish Communities, which co-sponsored the delegation to Israel, said in an email to JI that Dolan “left the mission feeling like ‘the world was a much smaller place’ thanks to the connections made and lessons learned,” adding: “He told us the trip was a ‘wonderful lifetime experience’ to learn more about ‘Israel’s rich history along with its current opportunities and challenges.’”

From a business standpoint, Dolan “was particularly interested in Israel’s success in workforce development,” Beigelman said, “both by the outsized returns Israel sees on its government investment in economic development as well as efforts in Israel by universities, political leaders and private industry to help provide more opportunities at advancement to disadvantaged populations who sometimes seem to miss out on the middle class dream.”

“I think those are areas he’s deeply engaged in, and has true expertise in, from a policy point of view,” Beigelman added. “They’re areas where I see — and I think he also does — the most benefit to Ohio from deeper collaboration with Israeli innovators.”

While Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has drawn criticism for incuding controversial far-right figures in his new governing coalition, Dolan was, for his part, diplomatic in addressing the political dynamic in the Knesset. “I think this should go beyond party politics and recognize that Israel is our staunch ally, our friend, is a bastion of democracy and freedom, and simply wants to exist,” he argued. “Every nation has their own internal political struggles. Is someone going too far? Is someone not going far enough? That clearly exists here in the United States.”

“But in foreign relations, we need to rise above that and have the common goal of the common good, and that is, we need to protect Israel,” he concluded. “That is, we want a Middle East that’s growing economically. We want peace and economics to drive it, and anything else is not acceptable.”

He praised the Abraham Accords, which helped normalize diplomatic relations between Israel and several Arab countries, as emblematic of such goals. 

“The Abraham Accords were not just peace accords, but they were economic opportunities,” Dolan explained. “The best way to prevent somebody from becoming a jihadist is to give him a job, give him a reason to stay home and support their family and create economic opportunities. All of a sudden, you don’t see each other as the enemy, you see each other with opportunities. That’s what we created in the Middle East.”

Withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal in 2018 — as Trump did — was another development that Dolan characterized as an advancement for Middle East stability. “It’s about security at home and it’s about security abroad,“ he said. “How in the world, if we’re going to call each other allies and friends, can the United States support a deal that would provide nuclear weapons in 10 years for a nation that openly wants to eliminate Israel? That’s just not how allies treat each other.”

He cast his opposition to the Iran nuclear agreement as a central point of distinction between himself and Brown, who supported the deal when it was brokered by the Obama administration. More recently, Brown has expressed skepticism of the Biden administration’s halting effort to reenter the deal. 

But Dolan also described some disagreements over foreign policy with members of his own party, including Vance, who have endorsed an isolationist approach to U.S. investment abroad, not least in Ukraine. “I am for supporting the Ukrainian effort with American resources,” Dolan said, “so that we make a strong statement to tyrants all over the world that any invasion of other countries is not going to be sat idly by.”

“I am a strong believer that America needs to be a presence in the world,” he insisted. “It’s not to decide not to engage in wars. It’s not to change regimes. It’s to maintain law and order.”

Dolan said he would apply the same level of diligence to countering a rise in antisemitic hate crimes in the U.S., noting that as a state senator he has helped approve security funding for Jewish schools and synagogues in Ohio. “They face it every day here,” he told JI. “Antisemitism is real and it’s painful.”

In the coming months, Dolan insisted that he would abide by a simple formula as he seeks to convince Republicans that he is best equipped to compete in the general election.

“I will continue to do what I do, and that is be my own person, go out and get my message out to folks, raise the money necessary to spread the word at the appropriate time, and make sure that the Republicans understand that we don’t have the majority when we should have had it,” he told JI. “To get the majority, we need candidates like me who can stand up to Sherrod Brown.”

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