The Republican contest to succeed retiring senator Rob Portman in Ohio has been all about Donald Trump up until now. All but one of the major candidates frantically claimed the MAGA brand in the early going and avidly sought the 45th president’s endorsement ahead of Tuesday’s primary. In February, one candidate, luxury-car dealer Bernie Moreno, actually dropped out of the race after meeting with Trump on the grounds that “this race has too many Trump candidates and could cost the MAGA movement a conservative seat.” And when the former president finally bestowed his blessing on Hillbilly Elegy author J.D. Vance, other candidates still made a claim for superior loyalty to Trump. The Club for Growth, backing (to Trump’s angry dismay) former Ohio treasurer Josh Mandel, continued to run ads citing Vance’s negative comments about Trump during the 2016 campaign. And Mandel has recruited MAGA ultra Michael Flynn to campaign with him down the stretch.
As Vance began to enjoy a bit of a boom in Ohio polls as Trump’s preferred candidate, another candidate has also benefited — the one major aspirant in the field who has conspicuously not sworn eternal fealty to the squire of Mar-a-Lago: state senator Matt Dolan, a self-funding candidate from the billionaire family that owns the Cleveland Guardians Major League Baseball team.
Dolan became a de facto non-MAGA candidate the day he announced his campaign last September, as Politico notes:
Trump’s fixation on Dolan has steadily been growing since late September, when he launched his campaign. That same day, Trump released a statement attacking Dolan, a part-owner of the Guardians, for the baseball team’s decision to change the name it had since 1915: the Cleveland Indians. After the team announced the change in 2020, Trump called it “cancel culture at work!”
“I know of at least one person in the race who I won’t be endorsing,” Trump said of Dolan. “The Republican Party has too many RINOs!” he added, using the acronym for “Republican in name only.”
Dolan’s family has repeatedly denied that he had anything to do with the team’s long-awaited name change. And the candidate himself, while risking thunderbolts from Trump by rejecting his “stolen election” fables, has also said he has voted for the former president twice, will support him in 2024 if he runs again, and opposed his impeachment(s). There’s nothing in Dolan’s record or platform that should earn him the dreaded RINO label … other than Trump’s fury. So if Dolan were to win, it would be a self-incurred black eye for the Man Who Would Be Kingmaker in 2022.
And it’s now looking as if that’s a distinct possibility. The three most recent polls of the Ohio contest have shown Dolan moving from the back of the pack to the top or within striking distance. A late-April Emerson survey showed him surging into third place, not far behind a newly popular Vance and longtime front-runner Mandel. Then the Trafalgar Group showed him moving into second place, ahead of Mandel. A survey from Blueprint Polling around the same time put Dolan in the lead, just ahead of Vance.
Why is this budding nightmare for Trump happening? There are four obvious reasons. First, money: Dolan has self-funded to the tune of $11 million and has run $8.5 million in ads, making him competitive with Vance and Mandel on the airwaves. Second, though he’s no “Never Trump” candidate, he has a lock on Republican voters hostile to Trump simply by comparison to others and because of Trump’s hostility to him. Third, he is benefiting from vote-switching from candidates (e.g., Portman’s endorsed candidate, Jane Timken) who don’t have a realistic chance of victory. Fourth, he’s benefiting from what I’ll call “the murder-suicide scenario,” in which voters displeased with all the attacks back and forth involving Vance, Mandel, and another fading self-funder, Mike Gibbons, are drifting toward Dolan, who is running an above-the-fray campaign.
And in the late going, Trump has underlined the threat Dolan poses to his reputation for power and sagacity in an April 26 statement that, again, fixates on baseball:
Anybody who changes the name of the “storied” Cleveland Indians (from 1916), an original baseball franchise, to the Cleveland Guardians, is not fit to serve in the United States Senate. Such is the case for Matt Dolan, who I don’t know, have never met, and may be a very nice guy, but the team will always remain the Cleveland Indians to me!
It’s looking like a close finish between Vance and Dolan, who might not differ that much as general-election candidates or as U.S. senators. But in terms of Trump’s efforts to turn the 2022 midterms into a referendum on himself, rather than on his Democratic successor (an endeavor in which most Democrats wish him well), the outcome could really go in either of two very different directions.