Analysis: Matt Dolan jumpstarts what's sure to be a crowded race for Sherrod Brown's seat in 2024
On the night of the May 2022 GOP Senate primary, when it became apparent early on that Matt Dolan, the state senator from suburban Cleveland, was going to lose to J.D. Vance, no one in Ohio politics believed we had seen the last of him.
Not when Ohio's other U.S. Senate seat, held by Democrat Sherrod Brown since 2006, was out there dangling like seemingly low-hanging fruit, ripe for the picking by some GOP candidate.
You have to know Dolan has had his eye on that prize since he emerged last May from a crowded field of mean, nasty candidates who stumbled over each other to prove their complete slave-like obedience and devotion to Donald J. Trump.
Dolan came out of that crucible with his dignity intact, having spent the entire campaign refusing to grovel to Trump.
And, this time, Trump may not be the omnipresent figure who hung over the GOP Senate primary last year, forcing all the candidates to embrace the crazy talk about a "stolen" presidential election — all the candidates, save one: Dolan, the only GOP candidate who was having none of the that nonsense.
"I believe that the Republican nominee is going to be focused on the future and solving the problems at hand, not reliving old grievances," Dolan told WVXU at the time.
Now, as of Monday, he is the first declared candidate for the Senate seat held by Brown, who served in the U.S. House before up-ending Republican senator Mike DeWine in 2006.
"A lot can change in 30 years, but in that time Sherrod Brown's blind loyalty to his party has remained the same," Dolan said Monday in a tweet announcing his candidacy. "I have a record of conservative, results-driven leadership. As Ohio's next U.S. Senator, I will place the needs of our state first. Join me."
A lot can change in 30 years, but in that time Sherrod Brown’s blind loyalty to his party has remained the same. I have a record of conservative, results-driven leadership. As Ohio's next U.S. Senator, I will place the needs of our state first. Join me. https://t.co/tIeVY8dcuS pic.twitter.com/XvcdJnKAC7— Matt Dolan (@dolan4ohio) January 17, 2023
Dolan, a 58-year-old whose family owns the Cleveland Guardians baseball team, may be the first to jump into the race, but he will not be the last.
"There is certainly a whiff of opportunity in the air, which tends to draw a crowd," said David Niven, professor of political science at the University of Cincinnati.
If you put your ear to the ground, you may hear the rumble of hoofbeats from a herd of Republican senate wanna-bes, stampeding to the Federal Elections Commission to set up Senate campaign committees.
And we aren't even three weeks into 2023. The Senate election won't happen until 2024, which seems to be beyond the event horizon, as we are still stuck between putting 2022 behind us and trying to figure out what 2023 has in store.
"What Matt has done is move up people's timetable for announcing candidacies," said Mark R. Weaver, a lawyer and veteran Republican campaign strategist in Ohio. "A rush of candidates will follow, very soon."
The next one out of the box could well be Ohio's chief elections officer, Secretary of State Frank LaRose, who has been plotting a run for the Senate for quite some time.
LaRose will doubtless get into the race; and will be considered by many the front-runner. He's been doing a rather delicate dance in recent months, trying to please both the GOP establishment in Ohio while at the same time building his bona fides with the MAGA crowd.
Others who are mulling over a Senate run on the GOP side include U.S. Rep. Warren Davidson of Troy, whose district now includes western Hamilton County; Bernie Moreno, a Cleveland area businessman who ran in 2022; and maybe Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost, who may decide that taking on Lt. Gov. Jon Husted for governor in 2026 is too rich for his blood.
There will no doubt be more. Consider the fact that in 2026 there will be a whole bunch of term-limited Republican statewide officeholders who will be looking for jobs. Some of them are already looking for the door marked exit.
Here's one thing Matt Dolan has that most of the rest of the field does not — deep pockets.
In the 2022 race, Dolan spent more than $10 million of his personal fortune on his campaign. There's no reason to think he can't do it again.
Can Brown be beat?
The question that Dolan and every other potential GOP candidate has to ask himself and answer is a simple one: Can Sherrod Brown, now in his third term in the Senate, be beaten by anyone?
Take a look at Brown's most recent re-election campaign in 2018. He was running against former Republican congressman Jim Renacci. Renacci's campaign got off to a bad start and was reeling out of control by the end of it. Still, Brown took only 53% of the vote.
"You have to take note of Renacci's amateur hour campaign and realize that Sherrod Brown only won by a few points," Niven said.
"He can win if he runs as Sherrod Brown, the champion of working people, with a populist message," Niven said. "He can't win if he runs as a Democrat."
The other factor to be considered is that the Republican Party is going to be hell-bent on winning back the majority in the Senate in 2024.
It slipped away from them in 2022, with Democrats walking away with a 51-49 split. They turned Mitch McConnell from majority leader of the Senate to minority leader overnight.
Democrats will be defending twice as many Senate seats in 2024 as the Republicans.
The GOP will focus on three seats now held by Democrats in states that went for Trump in the last presidential election: the seat of Jon Tester in Montana; the seat of Joe Manchin in West Virginia; and, yes, the seat of Sherrod Brown in Ohio.
Flip two of those three and it could well be the Republicans back in charge of the Senate.
The stakes in Ohio will clearly be very high.
Little wonder that Matt Dolan wants to start early, with the field chasing him.
And, unlike 2022, he won't have to spend the bulk of his time explaining why he doesn't worship at the bone-spurred feet of Donald Trump.