Republicans are already setting their sights on incumbent Sen. Sherrod Brown’s (D-Ohio) seat ahead of 2024, pointing to signs that the Buckeye State is trending redder every election cycle.
On Tuesday, state Sen. Matt Dolan (R-Ohio) launched his second bid for Senate, after his failed one in 2022, and became the first Republican to enter Ohio’s 2024 Senate primary field. Meanwhile, the National Republican Senatorial Committee has already started running ads in Ohio, targeting Brown and urging him to retire.
Republicans have won Ohio in the last two presidential races and maintained their hold on former Sen. Rob Portman’s (R-Ohio) seat after he retired last year. But Brown is considered a political institution in the state, making him an unusually formidable candidate to beat in an increasingly red state.
“The way the state has certainly trended over the last six, seven, eight years now, this is probably the best opportunity to beat him,” said Robert Blizzard, a GOP pollster with experience in Ohio. “This is going to be a different political environment for Sherrod Brown than what he has had to face in previous campaigns.”
Still, whoever wins the primary will likely face a contentious battle against Brown, who has distinguished himself in Ohio as his party’s last statewide elected leader.
“Only a fool would underestimate Sherrod Brown,” said one Ohio-based Republican strategist. “There’s a reason why he’s the last one standing among statewide elected Democrats. For years he’s had the ability to connect to Ohio voters.”
The incumbent senator is known for connecting with disparate voting blocs across Ohio, including white, working-class voters who have shifted toward Republicans since former President Trump’s first election campaign in 2016. But Republicans say former Senate candidate Rep. Tim Ryan’s (D-Ohio) loss last year to Sen. J.D. Vance (R-Ohio) is proof that Democrats’ pull with the voting bloc is fading.
“Go ask Tim Ryan, who copycatted the brand,” said Ohio-based GOP strategist Mark Weaver said.
Yet others say Brown’s brand is tried and tested. He sailed to reelection in 2018, defeating then- Rep. Jim Renacci (R-Ohio) by nearly seven points. Republicans argue that Renacci wasn’t a quality candidate, making Brown’s win easier. But Brown also won reelection in 2012, outperforming then-President Obama in the state by three points.
Other Republicans argue that Brown has gotten lucky in every Senate campaign he’s run in, pointing to the 2006 midterms being a notoriously bad year for Republicans, Obama being at the top of the ticket in 2012 and winning reelection, and Renacci being a poor candidate.
“You had three different elections where he was given a good year and in at least two of them, a weak opponent. He will have neither next year,” Weaver said.
That’s why Republicans say candidate quality this time around is of such great importance.
Dolan’s entrance into the race marks only the start of the GOP primary. Other candidates said to be considering a run include businessman and former 2022 Senate candidate Bernie Moreno, Rep. Warren Davidson (R-Ohio), Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose and Attorney General David Yost.
The state senator comes into the race with the advantage of personal wealth and a relatively strong name ID. In 2022, Dolan outperformed expectations, narrowly coming in third place with 23.3 percent support. Former Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel received 23.9 percent support, while Vance won with 32.2 percent support.
Dolan’s allies argue that he will be a formidable candidate, touting his popularity in the state’s suburbs and ability to appeal to more moderate voters as well.
“He fits the issue profile of where Republicans nationally need to go, which is a conservative but somebody who’s a proven problem-solver,” said Blizzard, who has conducted polling for a pro-Dolan super PAC. “He is the antithesis of a lot of the candidates nationally that ran in 2022 that lost close races.”
“He’s almost what the doctor ordered,” Blizzard added.
Dolan’s critics say that his past criticism of Trump could hurt him in a state where Trump has a strong base of support. But strategists say much of that depends on whether the former president wins the GOP presidential nomination next year.
Others point to LaRose as an ideal candidate, citing his ability to appeal to moderates and conservatives within the party.
“[Brown’s] in for a rough, rough year next year, particularly if our nominee is Frank LaRose,” Weaver said.
The top-of-the-ticket dynamic could also impact Democrats too, depending on if Biden runs for a second term. While Democrats defied expectations across the country in last year’s midterm elections, Republicans have continued to make inroads in Ohio.
“Ohio has been slipping away from Democrats for years because career politicians like Sherrod Brown have put their woke ideology ahead of Ohio voters,” NRSC spokesman Phil Letsou. “Ohioans overwhelmingly rejected Joe Biden in 2020, but instead of listening to his constituents, Sherrod Brown has voted with Biden 99 percent of the time, leaving our southern border wide open, raising taxes on the middle class and hiring 87,000 new IRS agents to harass Ohio families.”
The state of the political environment will also play a role in the race. Democrats at the moment appear optimistic following their performance in 2022.
“Sen. Sherrod Brown is battle-tested and has a proven record of winning tough elections,” said Nora Keefe, a spokesperson for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “He always fights for what’s right for Ohio’s working families, and that’s exactly why he will be reelected in 2024.”
But Republicans appear to be shifting their strategy toward targeting red-state Democrats.
In the House, Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) is already applying pressure on Brown, as well as other red-state Democratic senators up for reelection like Joe Manchin (W.Va.) and Jon Tester (Mont.), to support proposals that are passed out of the Republican-controlled House. The same three senators were targeted in the NRSC’s “Retire or Get Fired” ad campaign.
Republicans also argue that the party will benefit from presidential year turnout, especially with a competitive presidential primary in the mix.
“There’s a lot more votes, especially if there’s a competitive Republican primary for president. Not as much action on the Democratic side in a state like Ohio where anyone could vote in the Republican primary. You could see explosive turnout,” Blizzard said.