Ohio’s Senate race is one of the best chances for Republicans to take over from Democrats next year. But first, the Republican Party must survive a three-way primary without damaging its increasingly strong brand in the state.
Early polls suggest a tight race, but Bernie Moreno, a businessman running for the Senate for the second time, has begun to compile the kind of political rewards that challenge his status as a relative newcomer to electoral politics.
Since opening his campaign in April, Mr. Moreno has raised nearly $3.5 million. That figure includes the $2.3 million he brought in during his first three months as a candidate, when he outspent every other non-state Republican Senate candidate in the country.
Mr. Moreno, known for his chain of auto dealerships in the state, has received the endorsement of some high-profile Republicans, including former President Newt Gingrich, who announced his endorsement on Tuesday.
“As a conservative, political outsider and successful business leader, Bernie knows what it will take to disrupt the establishment in Washington, DC,” Mr. Gingrich said in a statement.
In addition to Mr. Gingrich, Mr. Moreno has received endorsements from Senator JD Vance of Ohio, Senator Marco Rubio of Florida and Charlie Kirk, the combative young conservative activist who founded Turning Point USA, a right-wing student group.
The Republican Senate campaigns of his two rivals — Matt Dolan, a state senator, and Frank LaRose, the Ohio secretary of state — downplayed the importance of Mr. Gingrich. Mr. Moreno’s out-of-state endorsements, they said, are intended to provide a veneer of in-state support and mask his past support for unpopular positions among Republican primary voters.
“He is an ideological shapeshifter who will say or do anything to get elected,” said Chris Maloney, a spokesman for Mr. Dolan. “It may have helped him sell cars, but it destroys voter confidence and would make him a bad Republican candidate.”
Ohio’s three Republicans are increasingly targeting each other as their primary approach. The March 19 national election means early voting, which begins on February 21, will begin in less than four months.
“Despite running once and spending a lot of his own money, Bernie hasn’t registered to vote in Ohio and I don’t see that changing — he’s a car salesman and it shows,” said Rick Gorka, a spokesman for LaRose’s campaigns.
Last week, a Moreno campaign memo mocked Mr. LaRose’s fundraising and attacked his Senate bid as mired in “political ineptitude and negative press.”
The memorandum criticized Mr. LaRose for his role in the August ballot initiative that did not make it difficult to amend the state constitution. The defeat of the measure, known as Question 1, was widely seen as a victory for abortion rights supporters who support a constitutional amendment in November that would have guaranteed abortion rights in the state.
A survey this month from Emerson College showed all three Republican candidates within one or two percentage points of the incumbent, Sen. Sherrod Brown, a Democrat seeking his fourth six-year term. That’s within the poll’s margin of error of 4.5 points.
The poll did not test the primary race, but showed all three candidates in strong positions among pro-Trump voters in Ohio, said Spencer Kimball, executive director of polling at Emerson College.
“This seems to be a pretty open race between the three candidates,” Mr. Kimball said.
Reeves Oyster, a spokeswoman for the Ohio Democratic Party, said all three Republicans would be the wrong candidates in the general election against Mr. Brown. Mr. LaRose and Mr. Moreno has both signaled support for a national abortion ban, something other Republican candidates have distanced themselves from as the party struggles to defend its position.
“No matter who emerges from this primary, it is clear that they will not fight for Ohioans or the issues that matter most to them in their daily lives,” Ms. Oyster said.
In his first campaign last year, Mr. Moreno had an early lead in fundraising but struggled to maintain that momentum. He ended up lending his campaign nearly $4 million while raising another $2.8 million. He ended his campaign about two months before former President Donald J. Trump endorsed Mr. Vance, the eventual winner, in the final days of the race.
Born in Colombia, Mr. Moreno immigrated to the United States with his parents as a child. He was an active donor to Republican politics but didn’t run for office until last year — a turn that forced him to reevaluate his views on some important issues.
He was also initially resistant to Mr. Trump’s rise, calling him “a lunatic who invaded the party” in 2016. But he has since called Mr. Trump “one of the greatest presidents I’ve ever seen.” Last year, he hired Kellyanne Conway, Mr. Trump’s 2016 campaign manager, to advise his campaign. And this year, his campaign team includes Andy Surabian, another Trump adviser.
Mr. Moreno’s daughter, Emily, was the 2020 Republican Party official and recently married Representative Max Miller, a former Trump aide who won his first election in Ohio last year.
Mr. Moreno has put $3 million of his own money into his campaign and has about $5 million on hand, according to the latest campaign finance reports.
Mr. Dolan, who also ran for the Senate in 2022 and finished third, gave his campaign $7 million this year and has about $6.7 million on hand. His last offer was approved by more than 130 current and former Ohio employees.
Mr. LaRose, a former state senator, entered the race in July and raised $1 million in his first 10 weeks as a candidate. A poll this month commissioned by the LaRose campaign showed LaRose leading the three-way election with 32.2 percent, compared with 22.5 percent for Mr. Dolan and 10.4 percent for Mr. Moreno, according to an internal memo.