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$55M Buckeye State Battle: Tomorrow’s OH Senate Primary

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Written by Ethan Mort

Tomorrow, Republican voters will decide who will face Democratic incumbent Sherrod Brown in what could potentially become one of the most expensive Senate general elections this cycle. Democratic control of the Senate currently sits at 51-49, but with Joe Manchin’s (D-WV) decision to not seek re-election, Democrats’ best hopes of maintaining control of the Senate goes down to holding onto their seats in Montana and Ohio, and winning Arizona. All three elections are currently rated as toss-ups by Cook Political Report. With such high stakes behind this election, the Ohio Senate primary has seen $54.8M in total ad spending. Republican advertisers make up 78% of that spending.  

The three major candidates in the Republican primary are Ohio Secretary of State, Frank LaRose, State Senator Matt Dolan, and businessman Bernie Moreno. Ohio Governor Mike DeWine and former Senator Rob Portman (R-OH) have endorsed Dolan, while former President Donald Trump endorsed Bernie Moreno. Dolan leads the field in total ad support, seeing $19.7M in ad spending backing his candidacy. His campaign has made up 55% of that spending, with Buckeye Leadership ($7M) and Defend Ohio Values ($1.7M) making up the remaining 45%. Moreno is second to Dolan with $15.3M in ad support, with his campaign making up 57% of that total. LaRose’s campaign has not placed any ad dollars on any media. His ad support comes entirely from Leadership for Ohio ($5.4M) and Patriotic Veterans Inc. ($94K). Dolan had the most ad support in the last week of the election at $7.5M, compared to $4.3M for Moreno and $378K for LaRose. 

The Republican primary has remained mostly positive in its ad messaging as 53% of its ad airings are positive ads supporting a candidate. The top issues in the election have been immigration, Donald Trump, taxation, illegal drugs, and crime. 

All three candidates have attacked each other either through direct campaign ads or groups spending on their behalf. Moreno has been attacked the most across ad airings, with the businessman being mentioned in 56% of all negative or contrast ad airings in the election. Numerous advertisers tried to paint Moreno as more liberal than he appears. Leadership for Ohio attacked Moreno on his position on gun control, Dolan attacked Moreno on his past support of amnesty and linked Moreno to the “Squad”, and a Buckeye Leadership Fund ad labeled Moreno as a “closet Democrat who supported Hillary Clinton”. Moreno turned these accusations around, releasing an ad proclaiming he opposes amnesty and accused LaRose of supporting the policy. Continuing the attacks on LaRose, pro-Moreno group Buckeye Values PAC released an ad calling LaRose a “champion for trans equality” who supports taxpayer funding for Planned Parenthood. Attack ads on Dolan have accused him of corruption, such as this Club for Growth ad, or portrayed him as an establishment politician, as shown in this Moreno ad linking both Dolan and LaRose to Nikki Haley. 

With most polling indicating Moreno would be the weakest challenge to Brown come November, Democrats launched an ad buy to boost Moreno. Within the last week of the primary, Duty and Country reserved $4M, and released an ad uplifting Moreno’s conservative leanings, linking him with Trump. The ad stated Moreno is “too conservative for Ohio”. Democrats have attempted this strategy before. In the 2022 New Hampshire Senate primary, Senate Majority PAC spent $3.8M attacking the more moderate Republican in the primary, Chuck Morse. In the 2022 Illinois gubernatorial primary, the Democratic Governors Association spent $15M supporting Trump-endorsed Darren Bailey and opposing the more moderate Richard Irvin. 

Democrats have mostly had success with this strategy, with the Democratic candidate having a comfortable general election victory in both New Hampshire and Illinois. One instance where the strategy failed was the 2022 Colorado Senate primary where Democratic groups boosted Greg Lopez who was defeated by the more moderate Joe O’Dea. For more information about Democratic groups wading into Republican primaries, read our blog we published on the subject last year.  

Though facing no serious opposition in the primary, Brown has spent $6.4M boosting his bipartisan image. Brown’s ads have focused on his commitment to veterans, by expanding healthcare for veterans, and touting the PACT Act’s benefits for veterans suffering from toxic burn pits. Democratic group WinSenate has already placed $65.6M in pre-booked ad reservations to support Brown in the fall. The winner of the Republican primary already has $77.1M in pre-booked ad reservations from Senate Leadership Fund and American Crossroads. If these pre-booked reservations are not cut, this year’s Ohio Senate general election is already on track to see $36M more than the $106.6M the general election saw in 2022. 

For more information about pre-booked spending continue reading here.

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