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Politics
Politically Speaking is WVXU Senior Political Analyst Howard Wilkinson's column that examines the world of politics and how it shapes the world around us.

Analysis: Let's not forget Matt Dolan exists in Ohio's Senate race for Rob Portman's seat

matt dolan
Andrew Welsh-Huggins
/
AP
In this file photo from June 8, 2021, Ohio Senate Finance Chairman Matt Dolan, a Republican from Chagrin Falls, talks about the state's $75 billion budget in Columbus. Dolan has cast himself as a pragmatic conservative who can be tough without adopting the vitriolic tone of some of his Trump-aligned rivals.

It’s true that Matt Dolan, a state senator from the Cleveland suburb of Chagrin Falls, is the only one of the seven Republican candidates in Ohio's U.S. Senate primary who hasn't spent every waking moment sucking up to Donald Trump and his followers.

Zero time, in fact.

So you might imagine how surprised Dolan was last week when the Plain Dealer/Cleveland.com posted an extraordinary editorial – one that begged Sen. Rob Portman, who announced a year ago he would not run for re-election this year – to jump into the race and save Ohio Republicans from an embarrassing and potentially devastating primary election in May.

"Otherwise, the ugliness that is the Republican primary for your seat will continue its cavalcade of intemperate, cruel, ill-judged, narrow-minded and explosive rhetoric designed to divide not unite," the editorial said.

"Otherwise, the majority of candidates from your party will continue to spew their lies about the 2020 election, lies that don’t just bust apart hopes to rebuild any consensus in America, but also that continue to shred the very heart and soul of the traditional conservative Republican Party values you have served so ably over your long career of public service."

They gave a kind of backhanded compliment to Dolan for being the only one to stay out of the mud pit that is the GOP Senate primary.

"It’s true that not all Republican contenders for your seat have taken a destructive tack," the editorial said. "State Sen. Matt Dolan of Chagrin Falls has staked out a patriotic high road of rationality, probity, honesty and restraint. He would serve ably. But he has never run statewide. And in the maelstrom of this nasty campaign, will his sober, reasoned, reasonable voice even be heard?"

It made Dolan scratch his head.

"I guess they were questioning whether or not I can win," Dolan told me in a phone interview.

First things first: Portman is not going to jump into the race. He's done. He's had enough and is coming home.

Secondly, this editorial imploring Portman to run for a third term came at about the same time that it became known that Dolan – whose family owns Cleveland's major league baseball team, the Guardians – had invested $10.5 million of his own money into his campaign. An $8 million contribution, plus a $2.5 million loan that can be paid back through campaign contributions.

That's some serious cash.

There's no limit on how much personal money a candidate can spend on his or her own campaign.

Investment banker Mike Gibbons has contributed, at last count, $11 million to his campaign, a good portion of it used to bash another candidate, Hillbilly Elegy author J.D. Vance. Former car dealer Bernie Moreno has spent about $4 million of his own money. And Jane Timken, the Cincinnati native who married into the Timken Steel family of Canton, has given her campaign $2 million.

Former state treasurer and unsuccessful 2012 Senate candidate Josh Mandel – easily the champion in terms of inflammatory rhetoric - has the ultra-conservative Club for Growth spending about $2 million in ads so far, all of it on TV spots bashing Vance and Timken.

Vance, for his part, had a sugar daddy early on in venture capitalist Peter Thiel, who gave $10 million to a pro-Vance Super PAC, although it's hard to see that much has been done with the money so far.

Much of that money was spent in the last quarter of 2021 when no one except the geekiest of political junkies were paying attention.

Dolan just started spending his money this week, when potential primary voters are just waking up to the fact that there is a campaign going on.

The state senator from Chagrin Falls first ad buy amounts to $1.7 million, running on broadcast, statewide cable and digital platforms.

"Cold War" is the title of the 30-second ad; and it takes on China and the Biden administration.

"We are in a cold war, this time with China," Dolan says in the ad. "And it's not just being fought on factory floors because China wants to dominate the world economically and militarily.

"Washington has caused this, and Joe Biden's weakness makes it even worse," Dolan says, as the ad shows a photo of President Biden and President Xi Jinping, looking all chummy and hoisting glasses in a toast.

Clearly, Dolan's ad campaign will focus on what he sees as the failures of the Biden administration and will have none of the Trump boot-licking that most of the other candidates do every morning, even before brushing their teeth.

Wouldn't do any good kissing the ring of Trump anyway. As soon as Dolan announced last year, Trump denounced him as a "RINO" (Republican In Name Only) and said Dolan was part of the "cancel culture" because his family changed the name of the Cleveland baseball team from the Indians to the Guardians.

As far as Trump is concerned, Dolan is not about to make the former president the centerpiece of his campaign.

"I will do what I have always done," Dolan said. "When I have agreed with him, I say so. When I disagree with him, I will speak out. I don't have his personality. I don't want his personality. I am who I am – a conservative who gets things done."

Dolan is convinced that Ohio Republican voters are not fixated on Trump.

"The economy and national security are by far the most important to the Ohioans I have talked to," said Dolan, who has done several "listening tours" since he announced his candidacy. "Republican voters are looking for ideas on issues that are important to them"

China, Dolan told me, "takes advantage of the weakness of the Biden administration," and Ohio workers suffer for it.

There is quite a traffic jam in the lane of candidates who believe, like Trump, that the 2020 presidential election was rigged, that mask mandates and vaccines are denying people their freedom as Americans, that January 6th was not an insurrection, that we need to finish that border wall, and a whole host of other nutty ideas that seem to have infested the Trump crowd.

"Maybe it hurts Dolan that in this crowd of candidates he can't check the box for being crazy," said David Niven, an associate professor of political science at the University of Cincinnati. "Or maybe he just leaves them to fight over the crazy Trump voters."

Maybe, just maybe, there are enough GOP primary voters out there who march to the beat of a different drum to have the Trump vote split up among five or six candidates, allowing Dolan to win with a relatively small plurality.

Maybe.

Matt Dolan is gambling on voters who are angrier at Joe Biden than they are in love with Donald Trump. A dice roll, but a calculated one.