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Battleground: How the outcome of the Ohio Senate race affects us all

Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump greets Ohio Republican candidate for US Senate Bernie Moreno during a rally at the Dayton International Airport on March 16, 2024 in Vandalia, Ohio. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump greets Ohio Republican candidate for US Senate Bernie Moreno during a rally at the Dayton International Airport on March 16, 2024 in Vandalia, Ohio. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Incumbent Democrat Sherrod Brown vs. Trump-backed Bernie Moreno.

The 2024 Ohio senate contest could determine the balance of power in of the U.S. senate.

Today, On Point: What’s at stake in Ohio and how the outcome might affect all of us.


Karen Kasler, Ohio Public Radio and TV statehouse bureau chief.

Christopher Devine, associate professor of political science at the University of Dayton.

Tim Ryan, founder of the group “We the People,” which aims to organize voters who feel exhausted by partisan politics. He was Ohio’s representative to the U.S. House for 20 years – from 2003 to 2023.


Part I

ANTHONY BROOKS: There’s an old saying about American politics. As Ohio goes, so goes the nation. And there’s some truth to that. Back in 2004, Democrat John Kerry came close to winning the presidency, but Ohio delivered the election to George W. Bush. Four years later, Barack Obama carried the state, helping him win the White House.

Since then, it has swung a lot more red. Twice voting for Donald Trump. Now a pivotal election in Ohio could determine the balance of power in the U.S. Senate. Democrat Sherrod Brown, a progressive populist, is running for his fourth term. His challenger is Bernie Moreno, a Trump backed political newcomer who says it’s time for new blood.

BERNIE MORENO: The reality is we have an opportunity now. We have an opportunity now to retire the old commie and send them to retirement home and save this country.

BROOKS: But Sherrod Brown, an ally of the working class, has a record of defying political gravity, showing how a Democrat can win in the American heartland.

He says Moreno is in the race for the wrong reason.

SHERROD BROWN: He’s a guy that is trying to buy the Senate seat. He’s a guy that clearly looks out for himself. He has actually said, I’m not going to work with anybody I disagree with in the Senate.

BROOKS: I’m Anthony Brooks, in for Meghna Chakrabarti. This hour On Point, the shifting political landscape in Ohio, and the race that could determine control of the U.S. Senate. I’m joined first by Karen Kasler. She’s the Statehouse Bureau Chief for Ohio Public Radio and TV. And Karen, it’s great to have you. Thanks so much for joining us.

KAREN KASLER: It’s great to be here. Thanks.

BROOKS: Yeah, this is such an interesting race. And I’d love to start, if you could just tell us something about Sherrod Brown.

Obviously, your listeners know all about him. A lot of people who are listening elsewhere in the country don’t. So tell us something about him.

KASLER: Sherrod Brown was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2006, and he beat a very popular Republican. U.S. Senator Mike DeWine, who is currently the governor, the two term governor of Ohio.

And since then, Sherrod Brown, like you said in the introduction, has been a populist, progressive Democrat. He has managed to maintain popularity even as Ohio has shifted more and more conservative. And this, he’s even said, this is going to be his toughest reelection campaign yet.

BROOKS: Now talk a little bit about that.

A progressive, populist Democrat in a state that has been trending more red. How has he managed that? What’s the message that he delivers, that so far, at least in his career, has been successful?

KASLER: The people who have watched him and studied him have really concluded it, he has a way of speaking to blue collar Democrats, to working people to some of the base that Trump and Republicans have spoke to, as well.

And so he manages to cross that line. Now, of course, you look at his voting record and he’s very clearly a Democrat, very clearly aligned with President Biden on a lot of issues. He has publicly broken with Biden on some things, and he’s talking a lot more about his breaks with Biden now, because he’s running in a state where it seems very likely that Trump’s going to win, right?

BROOKS: So really interesting. Breaking with Biden on some issues, still a loyal Democrat who votes with Biden, right? The majority of the time.

KASLER: Oh, absolutely. Yeah. And I think it’s just really interesting to watch this campaign and to see how he’s talking about, how he is aligned with even Trump on issues.

There’s an ad that’s circulating right now featuring sheriffs from some of Ohio’s 88 counties, and it talks about Trump and signing a piece of legislation on fentanyl. Biden is nowhere near mentioned in that ad. And so it’s part of his campaign strategy, I believe.

BROOKS: It’s really interesting. So a progressive Democrat, but in a way, is it fair to say that he’s figured out how to tap into some of that populist energy that maybe Donald Trump has even managed to figure out? The idea that he is reaching folks who feel left behind by economic changes over time.

It seems like at least on that measure, he’s got something in common with Trump.

KASLER: Yeah. I think he speaks definitely to working people. He talks about the dignity of work, and he’s gotten a lot of union support, of course. And I think that’s his style and has been, because the state has been shifting over time, more and more Republican. Since 2006, the state has done a really hard shift to the right. And when you look at Ohio’s election maps, you can see how red Ohio is becoming, especially in rural areas.

BROOKS: All right let’s hear a little bit from Sherrod Brown. So here’s an interview with MSNBC last month, and Senator Brown talked about what his priorities are, in his alliance with working people, saying where he stands. Here he is.

BROWN: I know that when I focus on taking on interest groups, when I focus on what we’ve done to fight back against what Norfolk Southern did to a lot of people in my state, with that train derailment, what the drug companies have done on overpricing. What, my wife and I, every, almost every Sunday after church, we go to a grocery store in the neighborhood, and I see people all the time who are paying more for their groceries because of stock buybacks and because of bonuses that executives get. So people know that I’m going to stand up and take on interest groups.

BROOKS: So there’s Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio with me is Karen Kasler, Ohio Public Radio and TV Statehouse Bureau Chief. And Karen, he’s being challenged by Bernie Moreno, a businessman from the Cleveland area endorsed by Trump. Tell us something about, a little more about him.

KASLER: Bernie Moreno won a three-way Republican U.S. Senate race in March. He beat a state senator and the sitting secretary of state, but he won primarily because he had that Trump endorsement. All three of the candidates in that race were touting their Trump views and their Trump-backed ideas. But it was Bernie Moreno, when he got that Trump endorsement, that really vaulted to the top.

It was the same kind of a thing with J. D. Vance, Ohio’s Junior us Senator, who got a boost from Trump and ended up winning that race in 2022. But Bernie Moreno is a former luxury car dealer. He owned a network of luxury car and other car dealerships in Cleveland. He also was a big entrepreneur in technology, Bitcoin, blockchain, and those are pretty much how he’s made his money.

He says that he does not have any interest in those things right now, or at least in the car dealerships. And his primary job is running for U.S. Senate, he says.

BROOKS: Interesting. Let’s hear from him. In March, during the final debate between the three Ohio Republican Senate contenders, Bernie Moreno made it clear that he was hitching his political wagon to Donald Trump.

MORENO: He’s a good man. President Trump’s a good man. This idea that I support his policies, but not the personality, that’s a bunch of BS. That is media talking points. This is a man that could have given up on this country a long time ago. That has taken more abuse than any other human would have ever taken.

They’re trying to put the man in jail, take away his businesses, put his kids in jeopardy. And what does he do? He wakes up every single day and fights for us and fights for this country.

BROOKS: And here’s former President Trump, who spoke about Republican candidate Bernie Moreno at a campaign stop in Dayton, Ohio in mid-March.

Trump said Moreno’s appeal should be in part that he’s a political newcomer.

DONALD TRUMP: Bernie is a political outsider who has spent his entire life building up Ohio communities. He’s highly respected, and he’s going to be a warrior in Washington. Bernie’s strong on borders. He’ll fight to crush the cartels that are flooding our towns and cities with fentanyl and deadly drugs.

BROOKS: So Karen, no doubt there that Bernie Moreno is hitching his political wagon to Donald Trump and vice versa, right?

KASLER: Yeah, and even when I sat down with Bernie Moreno for an interview just before the election. I asked him, do you have any doubts? Because he did have doubts at one point, apparently. In 2016, he had shared on Twitter now known as X, some social media posts, which were critical of Donald Trump.

And he pulled those back, erased those, eliminated those and says he is fully behind Trump now, even though Trump through his legal problems, through some of the things he said about Russia and NATO, all of that, he says he fully supports him. And he said what you just played there. He voted for him twice.

He believes he’s being treated unfairly and that he is a good man.

BROOKS: Right. Now, you mentioned that Moreno defeated two more mainstream Republicans, State Senator Matt Dolan and the Secretary of State, Frank LaRose. How did he do that? And talk about the kind of candidate he is compared to those other two more mainstream Republicans.

KASLER: And that’s the thing. When you start talking about mainstream Republicans state Senator Matt Dolan has been in the Senate for a while. He was considered more of the middle of the road, moderate Republican, but he definitely, when I spoke to him about trying to find a lane in that race. He very clearly said he didn’t support Donald Trump personally, but he supported Trump’s policies.

And then Secretary of State Frank LaRose, who was in charge of Ohio’s elections, really made a very strong shift toward Trump. And so the race really became about Trump and about who was the one who was most likely to support Trump, if Trump were elected this fall. And so it was clear from Trump’s endorsement that Bernie Moreno was the guy.

BROOKS: Now, Sherrod Brown, as you mentioned, first elected in 2006, now he’s running for a fourth term. And since that first run, Ohio has become a lot more red and it feels like this might be his biggest challenge yet. Fair to say?

KASLER: Oh, there’s no question. And this is going to be the most expensive U.S. Senate race in Ohio history. It’s already number three on the most expensive races in the U.S. according to Open Secrets. And it’s just going to blow previous spending away, because you’ve got Democrats who want Sherrod Brown to win so they can keep that slim margin in the U.S. Senate and Republicans who feel that Sherrod Brown is vulnerable and going to do whatever they can to vault Bernie Moreno over Brown.

BROOKS: Right. Now slim margin in the center for the Democrats.

We should mention 51 to 49, so it can’t get any slimmer than that. Now, Brown is often talked about the Democrat who can appeal to the industrial heartland, you know, presenting the kind of a model for Democrats. If he goes down to a Trump backed candidate, what does that say about the future of Democrats in states like Ohio?

KASLER: It’s a really good question. Democrats have really seen their fundraising power, their power to bring in good candidates who are known, who can raise money, have seen those things erode over the last few years. And Democrats will tell you gerrymandering is a big part of that. Ohio’s maps, according to the Ohio Supreme Court, were drawn to favor Republicans strongly over Democrats.

And so it really does send, a concern among Democrats is how are you going to rebuild the party and take back the party when the candidate who is the most popular elected statewide Democrat might not win. And so they have really been pushing hard from primary day to make sure that Bernie Moreno is not the candidate.

He’s not the one who wins.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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