Ohio Senate primary a clash between two different GOP foreign policy visions

Bernie Moreno is a Trump-endorsed challenger who opposes aid to Ukraine. Matt Dolan is a traditional Republican endorsed by the state’s popular governor

As the closely watched Republican Senate primary in Ohio determining the challenger to Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) enters its final stretch, two leading rivals who represent opposing ideological factions within the GOP are locked in an increasingly tight race for the nomination.

The election next Tuesday is expected to be a key early test of the traditional conservatism espoused by Matt Dolan, a state senator from Cleveland who has risen to the top of the polls in recent days, even as he has continued to express skepticism of former President Donald Trump.

In confronting the ascendant populism animating his party, Dolan, 59, is hoping to defy an outspoken MAGA enthusiast, Bernie Moreno, who successfully landed an endorsement from Trump in December. 

Despite the nod, which last cycle helped propel Sen. J.D. Vance (R-OH) to first place in a crowded field, Moreno has failed to secure a decisive lead. One poll has shown that Dolan and Moreno are locked in a battle for first place, with Frank LaRose, the secretary of state who has walked a middle ground between his top rivals, lagging behind.

Trump, for his part, appears to have recognized the stakes, revealing on Monday that he will headline a Moreno rally near Dayton this weekend, in an effort to energize his base just days before the primary.

The race to challenge Brown, a vulnerable Democrat in a purple state that has trended red in recent years, could ultimately decide the balance of power in the Senate.

But it will also prove consequential in shaping the direction of the Republican Party, particularly on key foreign policy decisions, as several top GOP Senate recruits have embraced an uncompromising strain of neo-isolationism that has rejected aid to Ukraine while stymying efforts to fund Israel as it battles Hamas in Gaza.

The Ohio primary has been a vivid showcase of an emerging intra-party debate between establishment figures like Dolan, who has vocally backed Ukraine in its war with Russia, and populist rivals such as Moreno, who has voiced “unequivocal” opposition to supporting the Ukrainians while also expressing resistance to furnishing Israel with additional aid.

Even as Moreno, 57, has cast himself as a staunch defender of the Jewish state, the Colombian-born Cleveland businessman has objected to providing increased funding to Israel amid its ongoing war, arguing instead that the U.S. should “expedite the weaponry that” Israel has “already paid for,” as he said days after the Oct. 7 terror assault. “We don’t need to give Israel more money.”

His remarks have faced attacks from Dolan and LaRose, who have both pledged to aid Israel, though a spokesperson for Moreno’s campaign suggested on Wednesday that his thinking has evolved.

“Bernie stands strongly with our greatest ally, Israel, and supports giving them the resources to fight the war with Hamas,” Reagan McCarthy, a communications director for Moreno’s campaign, said in a statement to Jewish Insider. “Israel can no longer coexist with the Hamas terrorists and they must be eliminated. America needs to give Israel the space to make that happen. Bernie has a long history of supporting Israel, including by investing in Israeli companies.”

McCarthy said that while Moreno opposed a $95 billion foreign aid package to fund Israel, Ukraine and Taiwan, which passed the Senate last month with support from 22 Republicans, he “would have supported” a stand-alone Israel aid bill introduced earlier by Vance, who has endorsed his campaign.

“Bernie believes that funding for Israel and Ukraine are two separate issues and that funding votes should happen accordingly,” McCarthy told JI. 

Moreno, who had once embraced a more hawkish approach to international engagement, has leaned aggressively into his isolationist positions, while a super PAC aligned with his campaign has run ads hitting Dolan over his support for Ukraine.

But his approach has risked alienating key constituencies in Ohio, which is home to sizable populations of both Ukrainian and Jewish voters.

For instance, Moreno’s rhetoric has been viewed with skepticism by some pro-Israel leaders who say they have found Dolan’s positions more reassuring.

Brad Kastan, a prominent Republican donor in Columbus, said that he is backing Dolan because the state lawmaker “has really shown moral clarity in his support for Israel,” even as he added a caveat that Moreno and LaRose both have solid pro-Israel records and boast “good ties” with Jewish leaders in Ohio.

“But during this time,” Kastan clarified, “Matt has been much more vocal.”

Shortly after the Oct. 7 attacks, Dolan wrote in the The Columbus Dispatch that “unwavering support for Israel is not just a matter of policy but a moral and national security imperative,” while calling on Americans to “remain steadfast in our commitment to Israel’s security and stand by them in the face of unprovoked attacks.”

Dolan, who is backed by Gov. Mike DeWine, a Republican, and former Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH), has generally aligned with the establishment wing of his party. 

But in a sign of how issues such as border security have taken precedence in GOP campaigns, he broke with some conservative hawks in stressing that, like Moreno, he would have opposed the foreign aid package, albeit for different reasons.

“I have said repeatedly that any national security supplemental must include substantive policy reforms that seal the border,” Dolan said in a statement shared with JI on Wednesday. “While the Senate bill does include some defense measures along with much-needed assistance for allies abroad such as Israel and Ukraine, it lacks far too many safeguards that would end the current crisis, prevent amnesty and protect taxpayer money.”

Dolan added that the Senate “should immediately get to work with the House to incorporate elements of” a hardline border bill known as H.R. 2, which he said “will seal the border, stem the flow of illegal immigrants and end the present crisis.”

For his part, LaRose, who has struggled to make a name for himself in the race, would also have voted against the Senate bill, a campaign spokesperson, Ben Kindel, confirmed on Wednesday. LaRose, 44, opposed the package, Kindel said, because he has vowed not to send more funding to Ukraine until “we secure our U.S.-Mexican border.”

“Frank thinks that America can lead with American strength,” Kindel said of LaRose, a former Green Beret who led a NATO peacekeeping mission in Kosovo in the early 2000s. “But that doesn’t mean you send unaccountable money.”

A spokesperson for the Republican Jewish Coalition declined to weigh in on the race, citing a general policy of not taking sides in contested primaries. Dolan and Moreno, both of whom ran for Senate last cycle, are listed on the group’s online political portal, which allows members to donate to their campaigns, but the spokesperson said their inclusion does not imply official support. The RJC’s national chairman, Norm Coleman, has endorsed Moreno.

Howie Beigelman, the executive director of Ohio Jewish Communities, which represents the state’s eight Jewish federations, said the three candidates “agree on the need to support Israel and strengthen the U.S.-Israel alliance,” adding that they have all “helped Israel in a material way.”

“Jewish Republicans in Ohio are seeing three candidates they like,” he told JI on Wednesday. “In different electoral lanes, each one answers different needs.”

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