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Natalie Allison

Republican who refuses to bend the knee to Trump surges in Ohio Senate race

Matt Dolan fits the mold of pragmatic conservatives whom Ohio Republicans have traditionally chosen for Senate. | Paul Vernon/AP Photo

The field of candidates chasing Ohio’s GOP Senate nomination has pledged allegiance to former President Donald Trump and beaten a path to Mar-a-Lago.

But not Matt Dolan. The state senator has declined to kiss the ring, and instead run as a traditional conservative — pouring $10.6 million of his own money into the effort.

Now, after languishing at the bottom of the polls since joining the Republican field, Dolan is finding that his strategy is finally showing signs of paying off.

Days before the May 3 primary, Dolan appears to be experiencing a late burst of momentum. While J.D. Vance — who received Trump’s endorsement last week — has surged into first place according to the most recent Fox News poll, Dolan was the only other top contender to gain ground in the poll since last month. A separate poll released Tuesday by Blueprint Polling actually placed Dolan in first place with 18 percent of the vote, followed by Vance at 17 percent.

Whatever momentum Dolan is riding, it was enough to prompt Trump to release a statement Tuesday suggesting that the state senator is “not fit” to serve in the Senate.

“I think there’s mounting evidence that he’s in a scenario where he’s running up the middle, unmolested, with a unique message and some things in his favor,” said Mike Murphy, a Republican strategist who lives out of state but donated $250 to Dolan’s campaign in October. “Does it mean he has a lock on the race? No way. But it’s a competitive race, and he’s in it. He’s got the momentum, as of last week.”

Dolan likely has a low ceiling of support, given his dependence on Republican voters who are willing to move on from Trump — a minority of the party. But in a splintered field of candidates, that could be enough.

“When I made my decision to get into the race, I knew that it was going to be a tough slog, at least publicly, for a while,” Dolan said in an interview. “I knew that I would not be doing well in the polls until much, much later in the campaign. I think it’s playing out as I thought it was going to play out.”

Internal Dolan polling shows him “tracking to second place,” according to a person familiar with the data who said the campaign has a “glide path to getting a plurality of the vote.”

Widely viewed as a longshot, Dolan has avoided any real attacks from his opponents, who took turns going after one another for months in a cutthroat primary that has generated nearly $70 million in ad spending. The Club for Growth — a super PAC supporting former state Treasurer Josh Mandel, who has led in polls throughout most of the primary — took out ads targeting Vance, Jane Timken and Mike Gibbons as each saw gains in support in recent months.

But they and other campaigns and outside interest groups never targeted Dolan, who has spent heavily on television ads with his own positive message since January.

Dolan is the lone candidate who refuses to toe the Trump line. He has accused the former president of “perpetuat[ing] lies about the outcome” of the 2020 election. He called the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol a “failure of leadership” by Trump and an “attack on democracy.” At a March 21 debate, Dolan was the only candidate to raise his hand when the moderator asked who believed it was time for Trump to stop talking about the 2020 election.

Yet Dolan has been careful to highlight that he considers himself a Trump supporter. Throughout the campaign, Dolan’s staff has been “dogged” about seeking corrections to any news reports that referred to Dolan as anti-Trump or a Never Trumper, according to a person working on the campaign. They would explain to reporters that Dolan had twice voted for Trump — unlike Vance — and that Dolan has said he would do so again if Trump were the nominee. Dolan has also said that he would not have voted to convict Trump in an impeachment trial.

Though Dolan’s campaign was once dismissed as a vanity project, Trump has long paid attention to a possible rise by the candidate. On Tuesday, he attacked Dolan not as an opponent of his America First agenda, but because the Major League Baseball team Dolan and his family own, the Cleveland Guardians, changed its name from the Indians after the 2021 season.

“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,” Trump wrote. “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!”

A person close to Trump insisted there was no particular reason the former president released the Dolan statement Tuesday, and that it was unrelated to polling data circulating on Twitter that day placing Dolan in the lead or in second place. The person noted that the message was something Trump “has been saying for months” — at least since Dolan entered the race in September — and that Trump just wanted to “remind people” about the Dolans’ role in the team name change.

Throughout the campaign, Dolan has said he was not part of the decision to change the name, but supports his family.

While his campaign events this week haven’t drawn high-profile supporters — such as Trump, who held a rally Saturday to support Vance, or Donald Trump Jr., who has visited the state twice in recent days to stump with Vance — Dolan has earned endorsements from three newspaper editorial boards and dozens of municipal office holders around the state. Local surrogates have also engaged in an aggressive letters-to-the-editor campaign on his behalf.

Mandel, meanwhile, has kept a low profile after traveling to campaign stops last week with Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security adviser and a leading advocate for efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election. This weekend, Mandel will appear at events with Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas).

Dolan’s campaign is well aware that Trump’s approval rating among Republican voters in the state is as high as 85 percent. Its approach has been to thread the needle between support for Trump’s agenda — Dolan joined other candidates in the primary in running an ad about closing the southern border — and his unapologetic denunciations of Trump’s baseless election fraud crusade.

“What we sought to do from the outset was illustrate to folks that this race has to be about Ohio,” said Chris Maloney, Dolan’s campaign consultant. “You can be for pro-Trump policies and not share his personality, and that’s what is taking hold among Ohio Republicans.”

In contrast with Dolan, whose large investment in the race for months appeared futile as he failed to gain significant traction, Gibbons, a wealthy business owner, has taken a dive after peaking earlier this year and loaning his campaign more than $16 million.

Murphy, the Republican strategist, noted several factors are helping Dolan now. In addition to emerging unscathed after the other candidates spent months hurling insults at each other, Dolan fits the mold of pragmatic conservatives whom Ohio Republicans have traditionally chosen for Senate, including retiring Sen. Rob Portman, former Sen. and Gov. George Voinovich and current Gov. Mike DeWine.

“He’s not an alien species at all to the normal comfort zone of the Ohio Republican Party,” Murphy said.

Dolan and Timken have had campaign staff out on foot for more than two months, allowing them to have an established ground campaign. But Timken has been dark on broadcast television and cable for weeks in several markets, and has been completely off broadcast statewide the past week, running only $15,000 worth of cable ads. A super PAC supporting her, Winning for Women, now has only a small number of cable spots running.

Dolan’s campaign and the Club for Growth are leading in television ads right now, followed by the pro-Vance super PAC Protect Ohio Values, an outside expenditure group that has received $13.5 million in donations from billionaire tech executive Peter Thiel.

At a recent debate, Dolan was asked whether he could win the Republican nomination without Trump’s support.

“Of course I can win,” Dolan said, pivoting to his record in the Ohio Legislature. “The irony of this whole thing is I’m the only one who has implemented Republican Trump ideas.”

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