Matt Dolan is a rare Republican candidate these days: a moderate conservative more interested in talking about infrastructure than in litigating the 2020 presidential election.
A US Senate candidate in Ohio, Dolan has criticized former President Donald Trump directly for his lies about that election. He has said he would have voted to count the votes on January 6. And, uniquely among the leading Republicans vying for the nomination in Ohio, he has refused to say President Joe Biden’s victory was tainted by widespread voter fraud.
In a party currently dominated by an unquestioning devotion to Trump, Dolan is testing the premise that no one can get through a primary contest without embracing the former President.
Some Ohio Republicans say Dolan’s rejection of Trump naturally limits his appeal to a GOP primary electorate — particularly as some of the leading candidates are tying themselves to the former President as much as they can.
But people familiar with Dolan’s campaign insist there is unmet demand among Republican primary voters for a candidate untethered to Trump. Dolan is counting on that share of the party to be big enough to win a plurality in a crowded field — and be better positioned to face the likely Democratic nominee, the well-funded US Rep. Tim Ryan, in the general election.
Across the country, establishment Republicans are watching Dolan’s race for signs of post-Trump life. That includes donors, the group in the GOP tent most open right now to moving the party past the Trump era.
“Those who were Trumpers before are still with Trump, and those who were anti-Trump are looking for candidates to support,” said Fred Zeidman, a Texas-based Republican donor. “Can (non-Trump candidates) win? We don’t know.”
But, Zeidman added, “I think that anti-Trumpers are more passionate this time than they were last time.”
The traditional Republican lane
A state senator in his second term, Dolan is trying to sell himself as the natural successor to US Sen. Rob Portman. The retiring Republican senator has occasionally found himself crosswise of Trump, either temperamentally or on issues like trade and certifying the 2020 election.
In 2016, Portman won more votes in his reelection bid than Trump did in Ohio and represents a center-right tradition Dolan’s team believes can still win in the state.
“He’s in the McCain lane, the Romney lane, the Portman lane, the Voinovich lane, the DeWine lane,” said one person familiar with the Dolan campaign’s approach.
But the state’s shift from perennial swing state to a Republican redoubt has many GOP operatives there skeptical that a non-Trumpian stand can win in Ohio. Trump, after all, increased his share of the vote in Ohio in 2020.
“You can’t win a primary just by trying to be Portman,” said one Republican strategist familiar with Ohio politics.
Better to be more like Trump, the thinking goes. The other major GOP candidates in Ohio — Josh Mandel, Jane Timken, J.D. Vance, Mike Gibbons and Bernie Moreno — are all itching for the Trump nod. Several of them flew down to Mar-a-Lago to meet with Trump directly earlier in the year and pitch themselves.
By contrast, Dolan is making no efforts to receive Trump’s endorsement. What’s more, the former President made it clear he isn’t willing to give it in a statement last month regarding the forthcoming name change to baseball’s Cleveland Indians, which Dolan co-owns with his family.
“Anybody that changes the name of the once storied Cleveland Indians to the Cleveland Guardians should not be running for the United States Senate representing the Great People of Ohio,” Trump said. “In any event, I know of at least one person in the race who I won’t be endorsing. The Republican Party has too many RINOs!”
Dolan is hardly a supporter of Biden’s. The GOP state senator has called himself a “conservative who will stop Biden’s agenda” and has criticized the Democratic president’s Covid vaccine orders, economic record and Afghanistan policy.
But Dolan fails in the most important test for a Republican candidate: his willingness to call out Trump’s 2020 election claims. As early as January 6, Dolan publicly decried Trump and other Republicans who “perpetuated lies about the outcome of the November 2020 election.”
Saying so is a bridge too far for Republican candidates, says Ramesh Ponnuru, a senior editor at the conservative National Review and a CNN contributor.
“You don’t have to say the 2020 election was stolen in order to be a Republican in good standing in Trump’s party. But you can’t say Trump lost the election and then tried to undo the election because he was a sore loser,” said Ponnuru.
A race toward Trump
Besides Dolan, much of the Republican field in Ohio is stumbling over themselves to appeal to Trump and his base.
Mandel, for instance, has increasingly adopted a quasi-Trumpian stridency on social media that has him making common cause with some January 6 protesters. Vance, meanwhile, has become a fixture on Fox News, espousing a populism aimed at the White working-class Trump base while atoning for his past opposition to Trump.
Even Timken, the race’s establishment representative, has emphasized her close ties to Trump, including how he supported her successful bid for Ohio GOP chair in 2017. Some in the party’s establishment say Timken’s accommodation of Trump gives her credibility with Republican voters but can present as palatable to a general electorate next November.
“I think there’s a place in the primary for someone supportive of Trump who is not in crazyland,” said an Ohio Republican operative.
If Dolan hopes to succeed in the primary, however, he’ll need a divided pro-Trump elecorate without the former President’s endorsement. His team is hoping that by differentiating himself from the rest of the pack, Dolan can convince Republican voters to consider his post-Trump pitch.
“They’re all saying the same exact thing,” said the person familiar with Dolan’s campaign. “That’s created a path for a candidate to get in who fits more of the traditional Republican mold.”
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