Ohio’s GOP Senate primary turns nasty as Trump’s candidate tries to fend off rivals

by Henry J. Gomez at nbcnews.com

CLEVELAND — Donald Trump endorsed Bernie Moreno in December, catapulting the businessman to contention in an Ohio Senate primary featuring two better-known Republicans.

But with less than two weeks until the primary, the race has turned increasingly hostile as it remains in a competitive haze.  

There have been few independent polls to measure the three candidates running for the chance to unseat Democrat Sherrod Brown in what is expected to be one of the top Senate battles this fall. One internal poll from the Moreno campaign last week showed him with a double-digit lead over Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose and state Sen. Matt Dolan, but it also found roughly a quarter of likely primary voters remained undecided. Other close observers believe the primary is much tighter.

“From everything I’ve seen in both public and private polls, along with talking to folks on the ground, the Senate race looks like it’s a dead heat,” said GOP strategist Scott Guthrie, a veteran of Ohio Senate campaigns who is not aligned with any candidate here this cycle. “I’ve seen polls with each of the candidates in the lead, and everyone is within the margin of error.” 

The three candidates are set to meet for their final debate Wednesday. And while a rally with Trump could help push Moreno across the finish line, a source close to the former president told NBC News that an Ohio visit is “highly unlikely” before the March 19 primary but declined to elaborate.

The vitriol in recent days has approached the level of the unrestrained nastiness seen in the state’s 2022 Republican Senate primarywon by JD Vance after a game-changing endorsement from Trump. Operatives supporting LaRose and Dolan view aggressive attacks from Moreno and his allies, as well as other developments, as evidence of a wide-open contest this year in which the Trump-backed candidate is having a tougher time making his case.