Skip to main content

Sherrod Brown Won the Ohio Republican Primary – Or Did He?

By Sean Trende
Published On: Last updated 03/25/2024, 09:01 PM EDT

Last Tuesday, businessman and auto dealer Bernie Moreno won the Ohio Republican primary. Moreno soundly defeated state Sen. Matt Dolan and Secretary of State Frank LaRose. Moreno, a candidate with no political experience who was endorsed by former President Donald Trump, garnered a majority of the vote in the three-way race, with 50.5% of the vote to Dolan’s 32.9% and LaRose’s 16.6%.

The immediate reaction was to draw comparisons to several 2022 GOP candidates, many of whom underperformed expectations and likely cost the GOP Senate seats – and control of the chamber along with it.

There may be something to this. Polling has consistently shown Moreno faring worse than Dolan. As an untested candidate, Moreno may be vulnerable to the types of missteps that plagued other Republican candidates in 2022. Moreover, he hasn’t been thoroughly vetted, as revealed by the breaking news (shortly before the election) that an adult website profile had been set up using his work address. Moreno is, without a doubt, the riskiest candidate the Republican Party could have nominated. In this sense, Brown probably is the real winner of the Republican primary.

At the same time, we ought not get ahead of ourselves. It’s true, for example, that in 2022, JD Vance – another outsider candidate – ran behind the statewide Republican ticket by double digits, carrying the state by just six points. But that probably isn’t the most salient lesson here. The point is that Vance won, and while it might have been a narrower margin than Ohio Republicans typically win by these days, he is now in the U.S. Senate. And while he ran substantially behind Gov. Mike DeWine, he only ran a few percentage points behind Donald Trump.

Sherrod Brown has the benefit of incumbency that the Democrat who ran against Vance – former Rep. Tim Ryan – did not. But Brown will be running on the same ticket as Donald Trump. Most polling shows Trump winning the state by double digits in 2024. This means that it isn’t enough for Brown to run ahead of Biden. He’ll have to do something considerably more Herculean: Convince roughly one in 11 Trump voters to also vote for him for Senate. There are candidates who can do this (it’s what Susan Collins did in reverse back in 2020). They’re just few and far between.

In short, even if Moreno proves no better a general election campaigner than Herschel Walker or Dr. Oz, those candidates still only ran a few points behind Trump. The difference is that Trump narrowly lost those states; those two candidates had to run ahead of him to win. If Trump carries Ohio by a large margin, Moreno has a larger cushion.

It’s true that Brown’s base is in northeastern Ohio, the same area of the state that has been moving toward Republicans, which might better enable him to pull off the feat. At the same time, over the course of his three Senate runs, Brown has seen his strength in the region ebb. The following maps show the counties in Ohio for Brown’s 2006, 2012, and 2018 elections, centered on the share of the vote Brown won. This explains why Brown has fared worse statewide in his elections since 2006. The maps basically show us the places that would have been in Brown’s coalition had he won a 50-50 race. These are truncated at +/- 15% so that outlying results don’t overwhelm the color scheme:

image 06
image 12
image 18

Brown’s 2006 election was anchored in the eastern portion of the state, particularly in the industrialized northeast. Notably, Columbus (Franklin County) and Cincinnati (Hamilton County) are purplish. By 2012, Appalachia had turned notably redder, while Brown held onto his strongholds in Mahoning County (Youngstown) and turned Franklin and Hamilton counties bluer. In his most recent bid, however, the northeast has taken on a reddish-purple hue, even as Franklin and Hamilton counties become even bluer. 

The trick is that Ohio is unlike a lot of other states. There are a lot of voters in small-town and rural Ohio, and the urban areas don’t yet dominate the landscape. For now, this is a tough tradeoff for Brown. That doesn’t mean he is going to lose. Brown is also probably in a better position than he would have been against Dolan. But this race is still very much a tossup, and one where I’d probably put a thumb on the scale for Moreno if forced to choose.

Every Week
The Takeaway
A special edition RCP newsletter that keeps you in the know on all the latest polls this election season.

2024 Key Races

Get caught up on the most important polling for the most consequential races of 2024.