Trump, immigration, MAGA and more: How Ohio Republicans are weighing their Senate choice

WINTERSVILLE, Ohio — Wesley Starr, 73, is still not sure who he is going to vote for in Ohio’s Republican primary for U.S. Senate.

“I’m impressed by all three candidates. I like all three of them,” he told NBC News at the Jefferson County Lincoln Day dinner.

Voters like Starr may well decide a close race for the GOP nomination to take on Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown later this year. It’s one of the most important Senate races around the country, and Republican voters are weighing factors including businessman Bernie Moreno’s endorsement from former President Donald Trump and other MAGA personalities, Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose’s record in office and military experience, and state Sen. Matt Dolan’s attempt to balance his appeal to those who want a different version of the Republican Party while still showing support for Trump.

NBC News talked with more than 30 Republican and independent voters across Ohio in the last week to get a sense of what matters to them as they choose a nominee.

“[Moreno] is supported by Donald Trump, which gives him a leg up in this particular race, but both LaRose and Dolan have very strong, strong profiles and good experience,” Starr said. By the end of his conversation with NBC News, he said he was leaning towards voting for Moreno because of that endorsement.

As he has in many other state and local elections since 2016, Trump looms large. Brian Kolkowski, who says Trump had his vote starting in June of 2015, says Trump’s endorsement of Moreno “made a big difference” for him.

“I want to support Trump. I want to make sure that he has the team in place to be able to actually change law,” he said.

Moreno has made a concerted effort to align himself with Trump and members of the MAGA movement, including Sen. JD Vance, Rep. Jim Jordan and South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, who are all scheduled to speak at Trump’s rally with Moreno on Saturday.

Moreno told NBC News that their attendance at the rally shows that their wing of the party “is going to drive a spear right through the heart” of the old-line GOP, name-checking Dolan and Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine (who is backing Dolan) as well as Trump critics like former Ohio Gov. John Kasich, former Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Sen. MItt Romney of Utah.

“We’re going to make certain that the America First party, the Republican Party, the new Republican Party cares for working class Americans … cares about voters in the base of the party,” Moreno continued.

But not everyone is swayed by Trump’s endorsement. Ben Batenburg, 73, voted for Trump in 2016 and 2020 and plans to vote for Trump in the general election, but he plans to vote for LaRose on Tuesday.

“I look at the individual. And President Trump can endorse whoever he wants, that doesn’t mean to say that I’m going to support that person,” Batenburg told NBC News. “I do support Trump’s policies and I support LaRose’s policies.”

Linda Ragsdale, 66, will also be voting for LaRose and told NBC News: “I believe in President Trump. But you have a mind of your own, we have free will.”

During a LaRose meet and greet in Mingo Junction, Ohio, a voter asked LaRose why Jordan, Vance and Trump endorsed Moreno.

LaRose said, “You have to ask them,” adding, “I can tell you this. Most voters don’t make their decision based on endorsements.”

Afterwards, LaRose also attempted to underscore what he calls the “excellent relationship” he has with Trump.

“I had dinner with him just a couple of months ago and I’ll be his best ally in the U.S. Senate,” LaRose said. “I think once Trump made that endorsement, there was candidly a lot of bandwagon-jumping for people that just wanted to go along with him. But I’m the one that can beat Brown, and I will stand with President Trump every step of the way.”

“So there is no daylight between me and Donald Trump,” LaRose continued, “and on the 20th of March when this primary is over, there’s no hard feelings that he made the wrong choice in who he endorsed in this race.”

Nick McNeil, 20, who attended the final Republican Senate primary debate at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, voted early for Dolan. He was a Nikki Haley supporter in the 2024 presidential race and said he’s not sure who he is going to vote for in the presidential election in November.

McNeil told NBC News he was deciding between Moreno and Dolan but ultimately went with Dolan.

“I think the Trump endorsement really swayed me away from [Moreno]. That really doesn’t appeal to me,” McNeil said.

Dolan spoke to NBC News about how helpful he considers DeWine’s endorsement, in the face of all the big-name support backing Moreno: “I think DeWine helps me win Republican votes. And I think his point was two things. I get things done that help Ohio — I can do the same in Washington. But I also could beat Sherrod Brown, so I think that’s a crossover appeal to all Republicans.”

When asked about the Trump rallying in Ohio for Moreno days before the primary, Dolan said, “Bernie is the Trump-endorsed candidate, and they must feel that Bernie needs help.”

For most Republican voters in Ohio, regardless of whether they are supporting Moreno, LaRose or Dolan, a top policy issue for them is immigration and the southern border.

Dorene Evans, 63, who is planning on casting her ballot for LaRose, believes immigration is “out of control.” She fears that “there are terrorists that got across the border.”

Stephen Bastian, 24, who is planning on voting for Dolan, said border security is his top issue, too. “I just think it’s important to keep our country safe and protected,” he said.

Kolkowski, who is supporting Moreno, told NBC News, “And with the border, I think that’s one of the biggest issues right now. I think we need to get the border closed down and we need to clean up the mess that President Biden has left us.”

But while there are unifying issues, the divide between factions of the Republican Party can be just as clear talking to the candidates’ supporters as it is talking to the candidates.

Sherri Garner Brumbaugh, 62, who has over 30 years of experience in the trucking industry and is supporting Moreno, believes this is a “crucial time for the state of Ohio.”

“As Republicans, we’re going to be traditional old-school Republicans or we’re going to change ourselves as Republicans,” she told NBC News. “I’m looking for that change in Washington, and Bernie Moreno is going to bring it.”

Meanwhile Amy Sabath, 52, who currently runs a nonprofit for a community college and was a political operative in Ohio who has held top positions on GOP campaigns, including for DeWine and Dolan, is planning on supporting Dolan and recognizes the split between the GOP in this race.

“I think the concern the ultra-conservative vote is probably going to split between Moreno and LaRose, but I’m hoping there’s a nice path for Dolan to come up through the middle with the more — I don’t want to say moderate Republicans, but maybe that is the better word,” Sabath said in an interview with NBC News. “I’ve always considered myself an ultra-conservative Republican, but I just believe in the right candidate, and the right candidate is Dolan.”

Dolan was door-knocking in Aurora, Ohio, on Tuesday afternoon when he encountered Reed Fuller, a voter who said he’d been a life-long Republican — until Trump took office.

“My heart says until Trump is gone, I will never vote Republican again. Sorry,” he told Dolan.

Aurora Mayor Ann Womer Benjamin tried to sway Fuller to vote for Dolan by noting that he’s “not a Trump person,” which garnered approval from Fuller, who added later that if he had to choose between the three candidates, he would choose Dolan.

As Dolan walked away he said, “We will bring you back into the fold.”

Fuller responded, “If you can do that, that’s fine with me.”

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