SUDDES: 2024 election could answer if Ohio still a politically competitive state

State Sen. Matt Dolan, a Chagrin Falls Republican, announced last week that he will challenge the re-election in 2024 of three-term U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, a Cleveland Democrat.

Dolan is Brown’s first announced challenger for a seat that Brown has held since 2007, when he defeated then-Sen. Mike DeWine, a Cedarville Republican.

Brown, age 70, isn’t to be underestimated. He was re-elected in 2012 and 2018 despite vigorous challenges from Republicans Josh Mandel (in 2012) and Jim Renacci (in 2018)

On the other hand, since the popular election of U.S. senators began for Ohioans in 1914, (when voters vested Warren G. Harding with the senatorial toga) the only Ohio senator of either party to have won four Senate terms was the late John Glenn, a Columbus Democrat who had been a Marine officer and in 1962 was the first American to orbit the earth.

Last year, Dolan, age 58, whose family owns the Cleveland Guardians, ran third statewide in the Republican primary for a U.S. Senate seat eventually won by Middletown Republican J.D. (James David) Vance. Dolan’s better-than-expected showing — a showing attained without right-wing sensationalism — demonstrated his appeal to GOP primary voters.

In 2024, in the Senate, congressional and General Assembly races, the GOP’s current strength in Ohio should give Republican candidates a general-election edge.

That said, Brown — formerly an Ohio House and U.S. House member, and Ohio’s secretary of state — has cultivated broad-demographic appeal as a fighter for ordinary Ohioans.

For Brown, the challenge is that that message may not resound as loudly and widely as it did in Ohio. Last year’s Democratic Senate nominee, suburban Warren’s Tim Ryan, for example, who lost to Vance, also had vowed to fight for rank-and-file Ohioans. But Ryan failed to carry either of the core counties in his former U.S. House district, Mahoning (Youngstown) or Trumbull (Warren), both of which have turned away from New Deal liberalism and toward the politicking of Donald Trump, as have other swathes of Ohio.

That shift in sentiment is one reason next year’s Senate race offers Ohio Republicans an opportunity — and not just in Northeast Ohio — to capture a Senate seat from Brown.

Moreover, Dolan’s reappointment as chair of the state Senate’s budget-writing Finance Committee positions him to be the focus of many local-government and interest-group pleas for a Statehouse benefactor as to program appropriations and state construction projects.

Sherrod Brown is no slouch at campaigning, and he is a formidable contender with the power of incumbency (in a, for now, Democratic-run Senate).

On the other hand, the Ohio Democratic Party (which in the early 1980s, had General Assembly majorities and held every statewide elected office except one Supreme Court seat) has nothing like that profile now. And if Brown is running on a ticket led by President Biden, that — at this writing — has some downside risk. As for Dolan, other Republicans are likely to seek the party’s Senate nomination, too. One example: Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose, a suburban Columbus Republican, and Ohio’s chief elections officer.

But in the 2022 statewide Republican Senate primary, Dolan carried Cuyahoga, Franklin and Geauga counties, and garnered roughly a quarter-million votes statewide — nearly matching second-place finisher Mandel, who’s not running this time.

Bottom line: Pending the fortunes and misfortunes of Joe Biden’ administration, a competitive 2024 Senate race beckons in Ohio, which could offer a definitive answer as to whether or not Ohio is still a competitive state politically — or safe GOP territory.

Thomas Suddes is a former legislative reporter with The Plain Dealer in Cleveland and writes from Ohio University. You can reach him at tsuddes@gmail.com.

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