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Analysis: Does Matt Dolan, A Republican Who Doesn't Court Trump, Have A Chance In Senate Primary?

matt dolan
Andrew Welsh-Huggins
Ohio Senate Finance Chairman Matt Dolan, a Republican from Chagrin Falls, talks about the state's $75 billion budget in Columbus June 8.

Is there room in next May's primary for a Republican U.S. Senate candidate from Ohio who doesn’t spend every waking moment kissing the ring of Donald J. Trump?

We may be about to find out.

State Sen. Matt Dolan, a Republican from the Cleveland suburb of Chagrin Falls, has embarked on what he describes as a "listening tour" of Northern Ohio to gauge the interest in him running in what could be a crowded Republican U.S. Senate field.

When I talked to him by phone Thursday morning, Dolan said he would be bringing his tour to the Cincinnati area and Southwest Ohio within a couple of weeks – territory where he is not as well known as he is in the Northeast.

"People in your end of the state are going to get to know me and what I stand for, and I think they will like what they hear and what I have been able to accomplish for them in the state legislature,'' Dolan told me.

He said he will make a decision about running in September, after his travels around the state are complete.

Although he doesn't talk much about Trump, Dolan said that as a U.S. Senator, he would have beliefs and an agenda "consistent with what a Trump administration or any Republican administration would have."

Dolan is part of the GOP majority leadership team in the Ohio Senate, chairing the powerful Finance Committee. His 24th Ohio Senate District wraps around the Democratic city of Cleveland like a horse collar, taking in most of the Republican suburbs of Cleveland.

One of the main things that sets him apart from other Northeast Ohio politicians is the fact that his family owns the Cleveland Indians baseball franchise, an institution near and dear to millions of Ohioans who live north of I-70.

The other thing that makes the 56-year-old Dolan different from the five Republicans who have already announced their candidacies is that he has told the USA Today Network's Ohio Bureau that he greatly admires the late George H.W. Bush, the 41st president.  

Dolan's told me that that the two U.S. Republican senators from Ohio who are his role models are Ohio Republican Rob Portman, whose retirement is opening up the Senate seat, and the late George Voinovich. He also says he admires the late John Glenn, a national hero as an astronaut and longtime Democratic senator from Ohio.

"I think I have a little rougher edge than Rob Portman,'' Dolan said. "But I am very much like him in that I don't spend time demeaning the other side; I'm just interested in getting things done."

Voinovich, a former governor, and Glenn were those kind of senators too, Dolan said.

These days in the toxic sludge pool that is American politics, just the fact that a Republican politician would express admiration for a Democrat is a rare occurrence. Or vice versa.

There are five announced candidates – former Ohio GOP chairwoman Jane Timken, former state treasurer and unsuccessful Senate candidate Josh Mandel, J.D. Vance, who wrote the best-selling book Hillbilly Elegy, and two Cleveland area businessmen, Mike Gibbons and Bernie Moreno.

There may be more to come, in addition to Dolan.

So far, there is only one declared Democratic candidate – U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan of Niles, whose Northeast Ohio congressional district stretches from roughly Youngstown to Akron. And it may disappear in this year's redistricting. Ohio's House delegation is going to be cut from 16 to 15.

The five announced GOP candidates have spent most of their time so far arguing about who is the most loyal Trump lapdog.

They were hoping that Trump would have used the occasion of his recent rally with thousands of supporters at the Lorain County Fairgrounds to give his seal of approval to one of the GOP Senate candidates.

But he didn't. Instead he talked at length about exacting revenge against Anthony Gonzalez, the Northeast Ohio congressman who was one of 10 GOP House members to vote for Trump's impeachment in January.

Trump's candidate for Gonzalez's seat, former White House aide Max Miller, got to be on stage with Trump and make a speech to the Trump loyalists. The Senate candidates were not invited onstage.

An endorsement from Trump for one of the candidates "would be enormous,'' said Mark R. Weaver, a longtime GOP political strategist in Ohio.

"There's no question that the vast majority of Republican primary voters in Ohio are still loyal to Trump,'' Weaver said. "If Trump endorses, that would be a powerful signal. If Trump actually did TV ads with whoever he might endorse, that would be 'game over.' "

After all, Trump did win Ohio's electoral votes in two straight presidential elections – both times by an eight percentage point margin.

But here's the rub. Here's where there might be a place for a candidate like Dolan in this race.

By the Feb. 2 candidate filing deadline, there may be considerably more GOP candidates than the five or six out there now. Maybe 10 or more.

Or there might be less, if some of the present potential candidates decide to drop out or run for something else.

"We just don't know at this point,'' Weaver said. "There's no one in Ohio who can tell you today how big or small the field of candidates in the Senate race might be. And the size of the field makes a big difference."

If there are a large number of Trump loyalists running, the GOP primary vote might be split up so badly that it could give Dolan an opportunity to win with a small plurality, assuming he could win over the Republican primary voters who are ready to move on from Donald Trump.

"It’s a small window for Matt Dolan, but not impossible,'' Weaver said.

Even a small window is better than no window at all.

Howard Wilkinson is in his 50th year of covering politics on the local, state and national levels.