CLEVELAND — The first battle of Ohio’s Senate race — already awash in hostilities among the three Republicans angling to unseat Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown in 2024 — arrives Tuesday with a special election on a hot-button ballot measure.
One of the GOP candidates, Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose, is the highest-profile champion of Issue 1, which would raise the bar for voters to ratify future state constitutional amendments from the 50%-plus-one currently required to 60%.
If it passes, the new threshold would apply to a separate November ballot measure that’s aimed at enshrining abortion rights in the state Constitution, making it harder for Democrats to challenge the Republican stranglehold on power in Ohio and highlighting Brown’s lonely, endangered status in an increasingly red state.
LaRose’s central role in the ballot measure campaign has emerged as a tension point in the Senate primary. Losing would do little to ease those feelings.
He has argued that his two wealthy rivals for the nomination haven’t done enough to support Issue 1. A moderate by reputation who has heavily courted the GOP’s conservative base, LaRose also is facing scrutiny — on the right and the left — for emphasizing the abortion angle ahead of Tuesday’s vote, as well as for what his critics call a divided focus between his political ambitions and the special election he is responsible for administering.
“A victory on Tuesday will give LaRose a story to tell donors and some much-needed credibility with the conservative grassroots around the state,” said Scott Guthrie, a veteran of Republican Senate campaigns in Ohio who is not aligned with any of the 2024 candidates. “If the issue fails, LaRose will have spent the vital early days of his campaign as the face of a losing effort and he will be open to criticism from the already skeptical conservative base.”
Reliable polling on Issue 1 has been scarce. A survey last month by USA Today and Suffolk University found 57% of respondents opposed to Issue 1. Both sides have poured millions of dollars into television advertisements, and Republican leaders in favor of the measure expressed optimism after seeing an uptick in early votes from rural counties.
“I don’t really give a darn whether it helps me or hurts me,” LaRose said in an interview with NBC News. “I’m confident we’ll win this. But even if we don’t, I think it’s better to fight and lose than to not fight at all when it’s a worthwhile cause.”
He rang alarm bells last week, though, when his Senate campaign called on businessman Bernie Moreno and state Sen. Matt Dolan — the other Republicans seeking the seat — to each contribute $1 million to the effort in support of Issue 1.
Dolan, whose family owns the Cleveland Guardians, an MLB team, is already self-funding his Senate bid, while Moreno, a former car dealer, has the wealth to do so. And Moreno, through one of his companies, had already contributed $100,000 to the Protect Women Ohio Fund, which opposes the abortion rights amendment set for the November ballot.
Political watchers in the state saw LaRose’s plea as a signal that he was looking to spread the blame in the event of a defeat Tuesday. The rival campaigns dismissed it as a stunt.
“It’s really sad that days before the monumental Issue 1 vote, Frank is spending his time humiliating himself and attacking fellow Republicans to the mainstream media,” Moreno spokesperson Conor McGuinness said. “While too many career politicians only seem to care about getting credit to advance their political careers, the only thing Bernie cares about is doing everything in his power to ensure Issue 1 passes.”
LaRose, an Army veteran and longtime politician, said he lacks the means to contribute financially to the cause. He did, however, help raise $1 million for Leadership for Ohio, a nonprofit group that launched ahead of his Senate bid and is now aligned with it.
LaRose said he did not urge the group to donate to Issue 1 in the months he was able to coordinate with the group, before he became an official candidate and campaign finance laws prohibited him from doing so. He asserted that he has put in “sweat equity” by promoting the measure at almost 70 events.
Moreno and Dolan also have advocated for Issue 1 in their appearances across Ohio.
Mike Gonidakis, president of Ohio Right to Life, which supports Issue 1, singled out LaRose and Moreno for praise while expressing frustration that the special election had digressed into Senate race showmanship.
“Bernie Moreno and Frank LaRose have been pillars during this entire endeavor for Issue 1 from start to finish,” he said. “I don’t keep a running ticker of who’s at the most events, but I can assure you that no one is working harder than Frank and Bernie on this. For either of them to start nitpicking each other, I think, is rather unfortunate.”
Gonidakis’ comments excluded Dolan, who emphasizes fiscal issues and border security while standing out as the only GOP contender who has not endorsed former President Donald Trump’s 2024 comeback bid. But Dolan’s campaign pointed to multiple events in which the state senator has plugged Issue 1. A senior adviser, Chris Maloney, also said Dolan would “actively oppose” the abortion rights measure in November.
“Matt Dolan has stepped up time and again, as a state leader but also in his personal capacity, and we’ve worked together to make sure Issue 1 is successful not just with words and resources, but through hard work,” Gayle Manning, a Republican state representative who has endorsed Dolan, said in a statement provided by his campaign.
No matter who the GOP nominee for Senate is next year, Brown can paint him as anti-abortion, a message that could be particularly potent if Issue 1 passes and the November measure fails with a majority short of 60%. With early polls showing LaRose leading the primary field and suggesting he is Brown’s strongest general election opponent, the secretary of state is already the focal point of Democratic attacks in one of the country’s premier Senate races.
“No matter the outcome, LaRose made himself the biggest loser and is now the face of an effort designed to help special interests and silence Ohioans,” said Reeves Oyster, Ohio Democratic Party spokesperson.
LaRose also is under scrutiny for how he’s talked about Issue 1 and how his office has administered the special election. Just last year, he characterized August elections as a shady way to pass ballot measures while voters are on summer vacation and paying little attention. (Statewide issues, he has since argued, are different because they generate widespread media coverage.) And Moreno has grumbled about LaRose’s comments at a spring GOP function, at which he described the Issue 1 vote in part as being “100% about keeping a radical pro-abortion amendment” out of the Ohio Constitution.
“He said it’s 100% about abortion, which has screwed up the messaging, because it’s 100% about protecting the Constitution,” Moreno said last month on the Common Sense Ohio podcast.
Moreno added: “I don’t love that it’s being done in August.”
More recent problems include a scramble to secure enough poll workers before Tuesday’s vote and an email to voters from LaRose’s office last week that gave the wrong date for the special election. Critics wonder if LaRose is distracted or spread too thin. He announced his Senate campaign three weeks ago, right as the Issue 1 homestretch began. LaRose rejects the insinuation.
“Those are political attacks by people with a political motivation,” he said. “The reality is that we’ve run the secretary of state’s office very well. I am personally somebody with a very high level of attention to detail.”
Ryan Stubenrauch, a veteran of Republican Gov. Mike DeWine’s campaigns in Ohio, said he is skeptical that LaRose’s campaign would be irreparably damaged by an Issue 1 loss. But he acknowledged the tricky politics of it.
“There’s always a risk when you’re running statewide to take some position, especially on a statewide issue,” Stubenrauch said. “If it wins, he’s counting on getting a lot of credit. And if it loses, he’s hoping it’s not squarely on him.”