In Ohio, Frank LaRose looks for his lane

The Ohio secretary of state is facing a three-way primary ahead of next November's general election against Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH)

Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose entered the race for Senate last month with an enviable profile as a pragmatic conservative with a record of winning statewide races and boasting an early polling lead over his GOP primary rivals. LaRose’s military service also distinguishes him in a field that includes two wealthy businessmen vying to take on Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH), seen as a vulnerable incumbent, in the November 2024 election.

But as he has attempted to stake out some middle ground while facing opponents representing both the pro-Trump and Trump-critical sides of the GOP, he increasingly finds himself without a clear political identity. 

His recent high-profile efforts to raise the threshold for amending the Ohio constitution — in a bid to maintain strict abortion regulations — failed overwhelmingly in a state that has become reliably Republican.

And as LaRose tries to curry favor with Trump — and his party’s Trump-friendly MAGA base — he’s found himself changing his views on key issues.

In a recent interview with Jewish Insider, LaRose, 44, maintained that he is “likely” to receive Trump’s blessing, noting that the former president endorsed his reelection campaign last cycle. “He wants to be with somebody who can win the race and also be a good ally of his in the Senate, which I would be,” said LaRose. “I’m the only candidate in this race who’s ever been endorsed by President Trump.”

While LaRose has privately raised doubts that Trump’s endorsement still “matters” to most Republican voters, according to leaked audio obtained by Politico, he stressed to JI that he “would love to have” the former president’s backing, which could be decisive in a state Trump won by eight points in 2020. His hope for the nod “doesn’t mean we agree on everything,” LaRose said, clarifying that their differences are “mostly stylistic.”

Republican candidate Frank LaRose gives his victory speech after winning Ohio secretary of state on November 6, 2018 at the Ohio Republican Party’s election night party at the Sheraton Capitol Square in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Justin Merriman/Getty Images)

“He’s got a style all his own. Some people like it, others find it not ideal,” LaRose said diplomatically of Trump, whose third presidential campaign he himself endorsed last month. “I tend to have a more Midwestern approach to things in the way that I interact with people — maybe a little bit less abrasive. But he’s also been very successful in life by being tough.”

Last week, in a move that some critics interpreted as a cynical play to appease the former president, LaRose hastily fired a top communications aide facing backlash over past tweets hostile to Trump. 

Days earlier, LaRose himself had reportedly drawn scrutiny from Trump when, in an interview with NBC News’ Chuck Todd, he tentatively affirmed former Vice President Mike Pence’s decision to defy his boss and certify the 2020 election results. A campaign strategist later walked back the comments, claiming that LaRose “wasn’t expressing agreement with or praise for” Pence’s “actions.”

In recent years, LaRose has also been critical of the former president. In 2019, for instance, he denounced some of Trump’s tweets as “racist” while asserting that the former president had made statements he viewed as “false.” Shortly after the 2020 election, LaRose, a former state senator who oversees Ohio’s elections as secretary of state, rebuked Trump’s efforts to cast doubt on the outcome, claiming it was “irresponsible to fearmonger about elections administration.”

The whiplash has fueled skepticism that LaRose will be capable of winning Trump’s endorsement over a top primary rival, Bernie Moreno, a Cleveland entrepreneur who has a warm relationship with the former president. While Moreno, for his part, once bashed Trump as a “lunatic invading the party,” he has since refashioned himself as a MAGA hardliner who refuses to acknowledge that Trump lost the election and downplays the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol. A third candidate, Matt Dolan, a Republican state senator whose family owns the Cleveland Guardians baseball team, has said he is uninterested in Trump’s endorsement.

LaRose is also facing questions about his efforts to preserve abortion regulations in the state. This month, Ohio voters decisively rejected a proposed measure to raise the threshold for amending the state constitution, seen as a subtext for thwarting an abortion-rights initiative on the November ballot. LaRose made himself the public face of the ballot measure, a decision he has continued to defend.

“I started working on this because it’s something I care about, and I don’t really give a darn how it impacts my Senate campaign because I do what’s best for Ohio, not what is in my own best interest,” he told JI days after the vote. “In fact, if I was just looking to do what’s in my own best interest, then maybe I would just sit quietly and raise money for my Senate campaign.”

While he characterized himself as “the Goliath in polling,” LaRose suggested that he is “the David when it comes to personal wealth,” a reference to his primary rivals, who can self-fund their campaigns. The bigger challenge for LaRose is whether he can deftly straddle the position he occupies between his opponents’ differing approaches to Trump. 

“Nobody’s above the law, but I look at others that have done what seemed to be pretty similar things that never faced this kind of scrutiny,” he elaborated, before hastening to correct his wording. “I should restate that — who were accused of doing similar things but never were investigated and targeted in this way.”

Unlike Dolan, who has long been openly critical of Trump, LaRose has largely tempered his past doubts about the former president. But in contrast with Moreno, who has actively worked to ingratiate himself with Trump and his allies, the secretary of state has only recently worked to curry favor with the former president in order to win his endorsement — or keep him neutral in the primary. 

Speaking with JI earlier this month, LaRose expressed opposition to the mounting number of criminal indictments filed against Trump, which he criticized as “misguided” and politically motivated. “I think that not just to me, but to many Americans, it appears pretty evident that the Justice Department, which works for the president, is targeting the person who is the president’s most likely political rival next year,” LaRose argued, invoking an oft-repeated Republican attack line. “That’s pretty deeply concerning.”

But LaRose found himself backed into a kind of semantic trap as he continued to explain his view. “Nobody’s above the law, but I look at others that have done what seemed to be pretty similar things that never faced this kind of scrutiny,” he elaborated, before hastening to correct his wording. “I should restate that — who were accused of doing similar things but never were investigated and targeted in this way.”

One area where LaRose disagrees with Trump is over Ukraine. LaRose, a former Green Beret who led a NATO peacekeeping mission in Kosovo in the early 2000s, is a staunch supporter of supporting Ukraine in its war against Russia’s invasion. Trump has opposed U.S. funding to Ukraine and claimed that the war is not a vital U.S. interest — a position echoed by Moreno, who has voiced skepticism of U.S. involvement in the conflict.

“I think it’s vital that the Ukrainians win this,” LaRose countered, emphasizing that he is “definitely on the side of the Ukrainian freedom fighters” and wants “to see them be successful.”

But while LaRose is supportive of Ukraine, whose presidential election he observed firsthand as part of an American delegation in 2019, he does not believe it is the U.S. government’s “responsibility to bear more than” its “share of the burden,” he said, claiming that “there is a limit” to how much the U.S. should invest in the conflict. There are other strategic avenues to explore, he argued, including aggressively countering Russian misinformation and training Ukrainian soldiers in allied NATO countries before sending them back to the front lines.

(L-R) Ohio Secretary Frank LaRose, House Majority Leader Steve Scalise (R-LA), Alabama Secretary of State Wes Allen and Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate attend a news conference about the American Confidence in Elections (ACE) Act at the U.S. Capitol on July 12, 2023, in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Meanwhile, LaRose suggested that the Biden administration can more meaningfully “leverage” its continued investment in Ukraine to exert pressure on European allies to step up. “The way that the Biden administration has been doing this has been incredibly haphazard,” LaRose said. “We need to do what’s in the strategic, best interest of the United States of America, and sometimes that means helping to equip our allies,” he added. “But more often, what it means doing is working to make sure that the rest of the world is doing their part as well.”

Despite such reasoning, LaRose, who remains an Army reservist, made sure to clarify that he leans towards the hawkish wing of his party on foreign policy and does not agree with the growing number of isolationists emerging within the GOP including Sen. J.D. Vance (R-OH), an outspoken Trump ally who has endorsed Moreno’s campaign. 

“I think there are too many within my party right now who are dabbling in isolationism, and it’s beyond just Ukraine,” LaRose told JI. “I think it is a fundamentally true statement that America is safer and more prosperous when we play a leading role in the world.”

“If we’re not engaging with the rest of the planet, we’re doing America a disservice — and we’ve seen this in the last century to tragic effect, specifically for the Jewish community,” LaRose continued. “When you appease and ignore a threat, it gets worse — it doesn’t get better.” 

Embracing a global leadership role “is essential for America’s safety and also for stability around the world,” LaRose averred. “I’m one who believes that you make an analysis of, ‘Is this in the best interest of the people of the United States?’ And if it is, then you engage in a smart and aggressive way to advance that interest. That means in Ukraine, that means as it relates to making sure that the Iranians do not acquire nuclear weapons — and in supporting one of our best allies in the world, the State of Israel.”

The Akron native, who described himself as a “proud Zionist,” said he would be a stalwart supporter of Israel in the Senate. “I would be not just a casual vote in favor of things like funding Iron Dome”’and “opposing BDS,” he explained, referring to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement targeting the Jewish state. “I would be a champion on those and many other things to advance and strengthen the relationship between the United States and the State of Israel.”

“The United States was Israel’s first ally,” he said. “We were the first nation to recognize the modern State of Israel, and we are still Israel’s most crucial ally.”

“I’m gonna be myself, and part of who I am is that I endorsed President Trump. I believe in his leadership,” he said. “But I’m gonna be me.”

In February, LaRose made his fifth trip to Israel, touring the country on a Republican leadership seminar sponsored by the AIPAC-affiliated American Israel Education Foundation. His visit coincided with the beginning of mass protests against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s proposed judicial overhaul. “In Tel Aviv, I saw the demonstrations as they were first happening,” he recalled.

The nature of the emerging Israeli “debate,” in his view, carried some “echoes” of the heated conversation around Ohio’s failed referendum this month to raise the voting threshold for adding amendments to the state constitution.

“There’s always this careful balance between executive, legislative and judicial, and of course, in Israel, the executive and legislative kind of run together with the Knesset and the prime minister,” LaRose said, without directly endorsing the overhaul. “But having these balances between the executive and legislative branch and the judicial branch is important, and it’s important one side not become more powerful than it should be. I trust the Israeli people to work out that balance in their own way.”

In the meantime, LaRose is facing his own challenges at home as he seeks to win favor with Trump while tenuously balancing his traditionally conservative principles. Taking a not-so-veiled jab at Moreno, LaRose insisted that he “can be a great Trump supporter” without trying “to be a cheap knockoff” of the former president. “I think there are too many candidates who have tried to just actually play a role where they’re going to try to act the way he acts, and that’s silly.”

“I’m gonna be myself, and part of who I am is that I endorsed President Trump. I believe in his leadership,” he said. “But I’m gonna be me.”

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