State Sen. Matt Dolan, a conservative who accused Trump of “perpetuat”[ing] lies about the outcome” of the 2020 election, but refused to be characterized as a Never Trumper, managed to exceed expectations and rose in the polls. But it wasn’t enough – not for first or even second place.
But by finishing third with 23 percent, Dolan managed to provide some clues to the size and makeup of a key voting bloc in the next presidential primaries — signs pointing to the huge task ahead for the GOP institutionalists. .
“It’s a MAGA-MAGA party,” said Joe Walsh, a former Illinois delegate who unsuccessfully challenged Trump for the Republican presidential nomination in 2020. “Trump is going to run. But let’s assume he didn’t. You’d be seven have up to eight MAGA candidates, and maybe you’d have one Larry Hogan or something like that. But they’re not going to get traction.”
The lesson from Ohio, Walsh said, is that “there’s no room for that, definitely not a winning job. And if you’re a Trump critic, you don’t even sign up.”
For anti-Trump Republicans, the improbable, best-case scenario for 2024 had always been Trump either disappearing or not running for president again and a series of MAGA hardliners storming in to claim his mantle, splitting the base and adding one branch. to stand-oriented Republican to slip past them in the early nominative states.
It’s a reversal of what Trump did to a mob of institutionalists in the earliest stages of the 2016 primaries.
But Ohio was Exhibit A in how hard that will be in 2024.
Dolan, whose family owns Cleveland’s Major League Baseball franchise, was about as close to a perfect test case for a credible MAGA alternative as you could find. He was less toxic to base Republicans than a never-Trumper, having voted twice for the former president. Rather, Dolan was an “enough with Trumper,” said Mark Weaver, a Republican strategist and former Ohio deputy attorney general who advised Dolan on a previous campaign.
Dolan had money — he spent more than $10 million out of his own pocket on the race — and name recognition. And among Republican politicians who bet on “a hunger for something that doesn’t involve wearing a red hat,” Weaver said, Dolan had the job largely to himself.
The problem for Dolan—and hopeful on the same mold for any 2024—is that the lane wasn’t nearly wide enough.
Dolan won Ohio’s two most populous counties, Franklin and Cuyahoga, home to Columbus and Cleveland and their suburbs. He finished second in Hamilton County in Cincinnati. But Dolan was unable to raise the score as significantly as his campaign expected, even in those urban and suburban areas, a consultant said.
And he got blown up almost everywhere. In some rural parts of the state, Dolan ended in single-digit numbers.
“If you look at the spectrum of support for Dolan, his highest level of support came from people who support Trump the least — a small number of people,” said Tony Fabrizio, Trump’s 2020 pollster.
In 2024, he said, “There’s not much room in that orbit. … It’s not big enough to support one [candidate]let alone four or five.”
Dolan’s performance in Ohio was reminiscent of — though less successful than — that of John Kasich in the 2016 Ohio presidential primaries. Then the Ohio governor and since then a vocal Trump critic, Kasich, like Dolan, performed best in more urban and suburban, densely populated areas of the state. At that time, it was enough for Kasich to win his home state.
But that was it. Ohio was the only primary Kasich won. And after Trump became president — bringing the party closer to him than in 2016 — Kasich learned his lesson by saying there was “no path” to the White House for him in 2020.
The landscape today is even bleaker for a Trump-critical Republican, even though Trump is no longer the incumbent. Given the party’s Trump-ian makeup, Jeff Sadosky, a former adviser to the outgoing Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, “I Don’t Think So” [Kasich would] got double digits.”
“The party has changed,” Sadosky said. “I think you can be successful without embracing Trump, but getting through a Republican primary if you’re openly anti-Trump will be a challenge.”
An Ohio Republican strategist described Dolan’s performance as proof that “a quarter of the party is ready to move on.” [from Trump]†
“Would that be enough?” [in 2024]† the strategist asked. “I really do not know. From Tuesday it was not enough. But as we get further and further away from 2020, the fever may start to break.”
Still, the quarterback said, “There’s no job for being a… [Mitt] Romney-type statesman.”
Trump-ism will get some hits this summer. In Georgia and Idaho, two incumbent Republican governors are ahead of Trump-backed challengers, and Trump-backed candidates are involved in close competitions in other states that may raise questions about the strength of his hold over the party.
Even in Ohio, the Trump-backed candidate, Vance, won the primaries with just 32 percent of the vote. In an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal widely shared by incumbent Republicans after the election, Republican strategist Karl Rove noted that “nearly 68% of Ohio’s Republicans either ignored or rejected the former president’s call to participate.” to his ‘Complete and Total Endorsement’ by Mr. Vance.”
It’s possible that Dolan would have performed better in Ohio if the field was larger — on the scale of an open presidential primaries. In a wide-open contest in 2024, a candidate could carry early primary states with a small share of the vote. In 2016, Trump finished second in Iowa, then first in New Hampshire and South Carolina, but only with about a third of the vote. If the incumbent candidates hadn’t reduced the rest of the party’s support, Trump might have stalled.
“A moderate Republican definitely has a shot at a big field,” said Mike Dennehy, former director of the New Hampshire Republican Party and former Republican National Committee member for the state.
Still, as a nod to how limited the universe of non-MAGA voters will be, he said, “I don’t think you can be successful if more than one known moderate” is active.
An adviser to a Republican considering running for president in 2024 said that for a non-MAGA candidate, the “best case scenario is Trump not running.” If he doesn’t — and if an establishment candidate can raise money — “there’s a clear path for someone to become a ‘Take us back to the basics of the Republican Party’ candidate.”
But it’s also possible that Dolan’s 23 percent is exaggerating the ceiling for an incumbent candidate in 2024. Initially largely overlooked, Dolan avoided significant attacks from opponents, despite rejecting Trump’s lie that the 2020 election was stolen — sacrilege to much of the Republican base. If a like-minded presidential candidate is seen as a threat in 2024, he would likely face a barrage of criticism.
Trump is already using Vance’s win in Ohio to set the tone for the rest of the primaries. Fresh off Vance’s victory, Trump took Vance to Pennsylvania on Friday for a rally for Mehmet Oz, the senate candidate who Trump supports there.
At the very least, Republican voters in 2024 will likely know which candidate Trump supports in case he doesn’t run himself. In Ohio, internal polls in the Senate race suggested that about 83 percent of voters knew Trump had supported Vance before the election. But that number was much higher among those who eventually voted for him. In a presidential election with months of non-stop coverage, virtually every Republican will know Trump’s pick.
“Right now, if you look at the anti-Trump capacity or elasticity within the Republican electorate, it might be 20 percent,” said Kevin Madden, who was a senior adviser to Romney in 2012.
To a moderate Republican, he said, “There’s a way, and there’s an opportunity in some states.” But among the Republicans who vote most reliably in the primaries, Ohio was proof that it is still vanishingly small.
“The thing with Trump,” Madden said, “is he just blocks the sun.”