Donald Trump’s preferred candidate won big in this week’s Republican US Senate primary in Ohio. So did Democrat Chuck Schumer’s.

Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, threw his weight behind Bernie Moreno, a 57-year-old former luxury car dealer and self-described right-wing populist. Trump headlined a rally in support of Moreno in the final days of the primary campaign, calling his candidate an “America first champion” who would be a “warrior in Washington”.

But allies of Schumer, the Democratic Senate majority leader, had also signalled their desire for Moreno to be the Republican party’s nominee. Duty and Country PAC, a fundraising vehicle affiliated with the Schumer-linked Senate Majority PAC, spent more than $2.5mn on a TV ad campaign trying to boost Moreno among Trump loyalists in the final week of campaigning.

In a 30-second ad, the narrator declares: “MAGA Republican Bernie Moreno is too conservative for Ohio. In Washington, Moreno would do Donald Trump’s bidding.”

“Donald Trump needs Bernie Moreno,” the ad concluded. “Ohio doesn’t.”

Democratic operatives have been meddling in Republican primaries in recent years to promote candidates who they think will be easier to beat in a general election. They believe the best way to do so is to boost the candidate’s MAGA credentials in the minds of Republican primary voters, who overwhelmingly back Trump, by attacking them as too close to the former president.

Their involvement in the Ohio race in particular highlights what is likely to be a persistent theme in races across the country this election year, as Joe Biden and his party look to paint the Republicans as dangerous radicals beholden to Trump.

The tactic paid dividends for Democrats in the 2022 midterms, when several of Trump’s handpicked Senate candidates — including Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania and Herschel Walker in Georgia — failed to win their races, allowing Biden’s party to maintain control in the upper chamber of Congress.

Kristin Kemper holds a sign during a watch party for Bernie Moreno during his primary election night watch party in Westlake, Ohio on Tuesday
Sherrod Brown faces a battle to maintain his seat in the US Senate © AP

Yet the strategy is not without its critics. In an open letter in 2022, around three dozen former Democratic members of Congress said the “destructive primary tactics” were “risky and unethical”. Many Democrats acknowledge that interfering in Republican primaries could backfire this time.

“I understand what they are trying to do,” said Jim Manley, a Democratic strategist and former aide to the late Senate majority leader Harry Reid. “I just hope it doesn’t blow up in their faces.”

“It is hard to say it is not a good idea given the track record,” added Matt Bennett, a co-founder of Third Way, the centrist Democratic think-tank. “But it could go wrong, and it would be very bad to have somebody like Moreno in the Senate.”

Democrats believed Moreno would be easier to beat in November than state Senator Matt Dolan, his more centrist Republican opponent. Dolan had been endorsed by Ohio Governor Mike DeWine and former Ohio senator Rob Portman, who are both seen as more moderate Republicans and have criticised Trump.

In the end, Moreno won the Republican nomination with just over half of the vote, with Dolan trailing on about 33 per cent and Ohio secretary of state Frank LaRose on just under 17 points.

A spokesperson for the Moreno campaign slammed the Democrats’ tactics, saying the party “constantly underestimate[s] the America First movement at their own peril”.

“They thought President Trump would be easy to beat in 2016 and then they got their clocks cleaned when he demolished Hillary Clinton. The same thing is going to happen to Sherrod Brown this year,” said Moreno spokesperson Reagan McCarthy.

Sherrod Brown
Sherrod Brown will need to outperform Joe Biden in Ohio to cling on in November © AP

Still, Moreno’s victory did little to tip the scales for non-partisan analysts such as the Cook Political Report and the University of Virginia Center for Politics, who both rate November’s US Senate election in Ohio as a true “toss-up”.

Moreno will square off in November against Brown, a popular longtime Democratic senator who managed to win re-election in the 2018 midterms by a nearly seven-point margin. Brown chairs the Senate banking committee and is widely seen as an effective lawmaker who maintains a strong connection to his constituents.

But Brown faces a battle to secure another six-year term in the Senate. While Ohio was long seen as a swing state, it has trended Republican in the Trump era.

The former president beat Biden there by an 8-point margin in 2020, bolstered by strong support from white, working-class voters in the so-called rustbelt. Analysts expect Trump to win Ohio again by a similar margin. To hang on, Brown will need to run ahead of Biden by a sizeable margin.

“Trump is going to win Ohio. Brown is going to outperform the top of the ticket, probably a lot,” said Bennett. “That is not easy for anybody, even somebody as skilled and connected to his state as Sherrod.”

Yet many Democrats insist they remain cautiously optimistic about Brown’s chances in a contest that is expected to be among the most closely watched — and expensive — Senate races in the country. It is also a race that could prove decisive in determining whether Biden’s party can cling to control of the upper chamber of Congress.

Many Democrats have noted that nearly one in five participants in the Ohio Republican presidential primary, held on the same day as the Senate primary, voted for Nikki Haley, Ron DeSantis or Chris Christie — even though all three have suspended their campaigns — in a clear protest vote against Trump.

“There are enough Democrats and disaffected Republicans still out there that will be turned off by the extremism of the MAGA party, as represented by Bernie Moreno,” said Manley.

“I am heartened by the fact that there is a core group of Republicans out there . . . that are being absolutely repelled by Donald Trump’s increasingly ugly and divisive rhetoric.”

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