Moreno's move

Bernie Moreno’s Senate candidacy to test MAGA strength in Ohio

Moreno’s announcement effectively cements his ideological conversion from an establishment GOP donor to a MAGA-oriented Republican who is now strongly positioned to notch the endorsement of former President Trump

AP Photo/Joe Maiorana, File

FILE - Bernie Moreno is acknowledged at a rally with former President Donald Trump at the Delaware County Fairgrounds, on April 23, 2022, in Delaware, Ohio.

Ohio has become a Trump-friendly state over the last eight years, and the political evolution of newly minted Republican Senate candidate Bernie Moreno is an illustration of MAGA being the new normal for the GOP.

Moreno, a Cleveland businessman who briefly ran for an open Senate seat in Ohio last election cycle, said on Tuesday that he will challenge Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) in one of the most pivotal Senate races for Republicans on the battleground map. 

Moreno’s announcement effectively cements his ideological conversion from an establishment GOP donor to a full-blown MAGA Republican who is now strongly positioned to notch the endorsement of former President Donald Trump.

“I’m running for U.S. Senate because I’ve had enough of the insider politicians in both parties selling us out,” Moreno, 56, declared in a social media post. “They’re too weak and too cowardly to get the job done. We need a new generation of political outsiders with some spine to put America First.”

Even as he had once privately expressed skepticism of Trump during his first presidential campaign, Moreno has worked to ingratiate himself to the former president. Early last year, he agreed to withdraw from a crowded GOP primary after meeting with Trump, he said in a statement at the time. They had both concluded, Moreno explained, that the race was filled with “too many Trump candidates and could cost the MAGA movement a conservative seat.”

Such deference, followed by a subsequent endorsement of first-term Sen. J.D. Vance (R-OH), appears to have paid off. Moreno, a wealthy businessman from Colombia, is now winning plaudits from some of the most important political leaders. 

Shortly after Moreno filed paperwork to run for the seat last week, Trump, who is mounting his third bid for the White House, published an encouraging note to his Truth Social account. “Word is that Bernie Moreno, the highly respected businessman from the GREAT STATE of OHIO, and the father-in-law of fantastic young Congressman, Max Miller, is thinking of running for the Senate,” he wrote. “He would not be easy to beat, especially against Brown, one of the worst in the Senate!”

Whether Trump’s early enthusiasm will result in an official endorsement remains to be seen, though Moreno is the most obvious choice in a primary contest now occupied by just one other GOP candidate, moderate state Sen. Matt Dolan, who launched his campaign in January. Dolan, a co-owner of the Cleveland Guardians who also ran last cycle, has drawn Trump’s disdain for emphasizing that he is uninterested in seeking the former president’s support.

The GOP field could widen as other possible contenders weigh bids of their own, including Frank LaRose, Ohio’s secretary of state, and Rep. Warren Davidson (R-OH), favored by the hardline conservative Club for Growth, which has clashed with Trump in recent elections.

A spokesman for Moreno did not return a request for comment.

Ric Grenell, a former acting director of national intelligence under Trump, said Moreno is “uniquely positioned as a first-generation American” to win the Republican nomination and compete against Brown in what is expected to be a hotly contested general election. 

“I have seen through traveling the country that, really, first- and second-generation Americans are the canaries in the coalmine about what’s happening in the United States,” Grenell, who has joined Moreno’s campaign as a co-chair and supported him last election, said in an interview with Jewish Insider on Tuesday. “They are the most patriotic.”

Moreno immigrated to the United States from Colombia as a child and made his fortune as a car dealership magnate before turning to Republican activism. 

Regarding Moreno’s ideological shift during the Trump era, Grenell said approvingly that the Cleveland-based entrepreneur “knows how to read the movement” and is “not stuck in his own beliefs.”

He declined to comment on the prospect of a Trump endorsement but hinted at a symbiosis between Moreno’s campaign and Vance, who also expressed criticism of the former president before channeling a more hard-right persona as a Senate candidate. “The kitchen cabinet working with Bernie are all very big fans of J.D. Vance,” Grenell said.

It remains unclear if Moreno, whose campaign site includes just a brief list of priorities, will embrace the isolationist foreign policy vision promoted by Trump and Vance. Both have expressed resistance, for example, to funding Ukraine in its war with Russia — a position that has fueled growing divisions between establishment hawks and more populist-leaning Republicans.

In the 2016 presidential primary, Moreno was initially a supporter of Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), who has promoted a traditional Republican foreign policy approach, before turning to Trump.

Moreno has otherwise identified as a staunch supporter of Israel, even as he has never held elected office. “I’m somebody who’s traveled to Israel many times,” he told JI during his first campaign. “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.”

In interviews with JI on Tuesday, a handful of Jewish leaders in Ohio expressed a positive view of Moreno’s approach to Israel and the Middle East. 

“Bernie has not been in office, so in terms of a record there’s not much to speak of, but from everything I’ve heard about him, he’s strong on the issues we care about,” said Jason Wuliger, a former member of the board of trustees of the Jewish Federation of Cleveland.

But Wuliger also reserved praise for Dolan and LaRose, both of whom visited Israel in recent months and have “a strong history” of engagement “with the pro-Israel and Jewish communities,” he said.

Brad Kastan, a Republican fundraiser in Columbus, echoed that assessment. “I think all three of them are excellent, certainly on that issue, and have made an effort to reach out to the community,” he told JI. 

Speaking more broadly of Moreno, with whom he has met, Kastan described the Republican candidate as “a really likable person” with “a very compelling personal story.”

“We’ve seen candidates the last couple of cycles who, I think, come across as angry,” Kastan said, “and he certainly is not that.”

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