In the final month of Ohio’s hard-fought Republican Senate primary, Matt Dolan had a surge in momentum that stunned political observers. They assumed a candidate defying Donald Trump wouldn’t find traction with GOP primary voters.
Now Dolan is plotting his next moves in Republican politics: Namely, his quest to push the GOP – in Ohio and elsewhere – past its obsession with Trump.
In an interview, Dolan told POLITICO that his plan includes launching a federal leadership PAC and likely making another bid for statewide office.
“This isn’t an obituary for me,” said Dolan, a part-owner of the Cleveland Guardians baseball team who put more than $10 million of his own money into his Senate bid that drew about a quarter of the vote for a close, third-place finish.
Dolan has tried to tread carefully as a Trump skeptic. He has eschewed labels of being anti-Trump or Never Trump and declined to make it a central campaign theme, while still speaking candidly about the former president’s election lies. It’s a strategy that has proven successful for some other Republicans in this year’s midterm elections, such as Gov. Brian Kemp (R-Ga.) and Rep. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.), who won their reelection bids despite facing Trump-endorsed challengers.
Even if Republicans gain the majority in Congress in 2022, they “won’t maintain it,” Dolan said, if the GOP doesn’t put aside intra-party squabbling and pass the legislation they’ve long campaigned on. He pointed to the period leading up to the 2020 elections, when Republicans lost both the House and Senate.
“We didn’t secure the border when we had a chance to,” Dolan continued. “President Trump had to do it through executive order. We didn’t do anything with health care. Why? Because we spent more time fighting each other and defining each other in brand new terms as to how you perceive the sitting president, and how you perceive the ex-president. What concerns me is that we are redefining what being a conservative means within the Republican Party.”
“You’re not conservative because of how you view a 2020 election,” he said.
Dolan was the only candidate on a debate stage of five in March to raise his hand when the moderator asked if, for the betterment of the Republican Party, it was time for Trump to stop talking about the last presidential election. His opponents stared ahead during what Dolan now calls a “seminal moment” in his campaign. Dolan’s rise in the polls followed, fueled by his own spending on positive television ads and his opponents’ series of attacks on each other as they competed to earn Trump’s endorsement.
J.D. Vance, the “Hillbilly Elegy” author, ultimately won Trump’s backing and the Republican nomination with 32.2 percent of the vote. Josh Mandel came in second place with 23.9 percent — but Dolan was close on his heels with 23.3 percent.
Dolan’s stronger-than-expected finish in the seven-way primary occurred despite him ending the race with lower statewide name recognition than his top opponents — though his name ID doubled from July 2021 to March 2022, according to internal campaign polling. He finished first in two of Ohio’s most populous counties, Franklin and Cuyahoga, and in at least second place in 14 of the state’s top 20 largest counties.
Since the primary, Dolan has received calls from top Republicans praising his performance in the race, including potential 2024 presidential contenders like Sens. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), Rick Scott (R-Fla.) and Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), according to a Dolan adviser.
Dolan said he heard from a number of people after the race thanking him for running and insisting that Republicans need someone like him. But he said that he’s still concerned that too few national Republicans are speaking up in support of candidates willing to move on from Trump.
“I’m a nice guy and I say, ‘Thank you, that’s nice.’ But inside, I’m thinking, ‘We’re not going to win if we all stay silent’,” Dolan said.
Despite the fact that voters who supported hardline Trump loyalists made up a bigger piece of the Ohio GOP primary electorate, Dolan’s margin shows “there is an appetite” for something beyond personality-driven politics, said Robert Blizzard, a Republican pollster who has worked extensively in Ohio.
“We’re two or three cycles from Ohio still being considered the quintessential swing state,” said Blizzard, who conducted polling for a pro-Dolan super PAC. “It’s not as if this is Alabama.”
Blizzard said he asked Republican voters in Ohio what they considered more important in their next U.S. senator: 22 percent said strongly supporting Donald Trump; 71 percent said strongly opposing Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi and “liberals in Washington.”
This is a pattern Blizzard said he saw in other states where he conducted primary polls. Even in Alabama — a state Trump won in 2020 by 25 percentage points — just 36 percent of GOP voters said support for Trump was most important, Blizzard said, in contrast with 59 percent saying the top priority is opposing Democrats in Washington.
Dolan is someone with “national vision,” said George Vincent, a longtime Republican operative and former chair of the Hamilton County Republican Party, who plans to give to the new leadership PAC.
“Matt was single digits. The last guy to get into the race. There were millions and millions and millions of dollars being spent by other candidates,” Vincent said. “But he broke through the clutter, particularly at the end.”
Vincent suggested that Dolan is in a prime spot to run for Senate again in 2024: “He had a positive message. I don’t think he irritated anybody. He ran an upfront, clean race.”
Even detractors had flattering things to say about Dolan at the end of his campaign. Donald Trump Jr. shared Dolan’s election night tweet quickly conceding his loss and pledging to support Vance in the general election
“Not easy to do, but glad to see it happen…” Trump Jr. wrote. “Much respect @dolan4ohio.”
In Vance’s own victory speech, he praised Dolan for running “a campaign about issues, about substance.”
“He has been a great public servant for this country, and I think our party was better for the campaign that Matt Dolan ran,” Vance said. “So thank you, Matt.
Dolan acknowledges that others in recent years — including in his own state — have not found much success in trying to influence the party to move away from loyalty to Trump and channel their efforts into passing pragmatic conservative legislation.
“I don’t know why [former Ohio Gov.] John Kasich didn’t take off. I don’t know why [Maryland Gov.] Larry Hogan’s not,” Dolan said. “But I’m going to do my part in Ohio to make sure Republican ideas and our agenda is clear, and we actually get this done.”
Dolan’s vision for the Republican Party is that they’ll “move away from this all or nothing principle.” He pointed to how partisan voters’ perception has become of the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the Capitol.
“We can’t even come to an understanding that it was a bad day for America and we need to learn from it,” he said of Republicans’ view of Jan. 6. “We can’t even do that.”
Dolan, the only candidate in the Ohio GOP Senate primary who expressed support for a bipartisan infrastructure bill that passed in Congress, wants to see Republicans willing to seek some common ground with Democrats.
“It is the easiest thing in the world to vote no on a bill,” Dolan said. “It’s so easy. You can point to any bill and find things that aren’t good with it. That’s the hard part, that people are going to have to recognize that results matter.”
Next week, Dolan will address German Marshall Fund fellows visiting Cleveland, giving remarks on the state of American politics, solidifying Trans-Atlantic relations and “protecting and upholding the rule of law,” said Chris Maloney, a strategist on his Senate campaign who will direct Dolan’s new Ohio Matters PAC. Longtime Dolan fundraiser Kathi Paroska will also be involved in the PAC.
Dolan, who finished the race with $216,000 remaining in his campaign account, is going through the process of receiving approval from donors to transfer the funds to his new PAC — and expects nearly all of it will be moved over.
An attorney who hails from a wealthy family, Dolan has significant resources of his own he could invest in the PAC. He said he is willing to do so, but hasn’t yet determined how much — and would first like to see others invest, as well.
“I’m not just going to recede in the background and say ‘Oh, I guess that’s what Republicans want,’” Dolan said. “There’s too much at stake. I don’t like the direction of where our country is going now.”