The Humiliating Ohio Senate Race
About the author: David Frum is a staff writer at The Atlantic and the author of Trumpocalypse: Restoring American Democracy (2020). In 2001 and 2002, he was a speechwriter for President George W. Bush.
Bernie Moreno should have been a contender. Instead, he has dropped out of the race for Ohio’s Senate seat after spending millions of his own money and never reaching even fifth place in polls of the Republican primary. It’s a story with a lesson, a very sad lesson.
Moreno, age 54, declared last year for the seat now held by Ohio Republican Rob Portman. Portman’s seat had previously been held by former Cleveland Mayor George Voinovich, another Republican; before Voinovich, by the former astronaut John Glenn, a Democrat; before John Glenn, by the real-estate developer Howard Metzenbaum, also a Democrat.
Moreno was a candidate in the mold of those predecessors. Like them, he was hugely accomplished in private life. In his case, he built one of the nation’s largest networks of auto dealerships, then in 2018 founded an Ohio-based technology incubator, Ownum. Before joining the Republican primary, Moreno, like those previous Ohio senators, espoused fundamentally moderate politics. He backed John Kasich for governor in 2010 and 2014, then Marco Rubio for president in 2016. Only at the last minute did Moreno realize he needed to jump aboard the train of Trump radicalism and nihilism. His catchup leap was spectacular, and spectacularly unsuccessful.
On November 7, 2020, Moreno tweeted congratulations to newly elected President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris for their “hard fought victory.” In a separate tweet, he urged fellow Republicans to accept the decision of 140 million votes cast. He used the hashtag #ElectionisOver, and urged unity and an eye to rebuilding for the future. Moreno has since deleted those tweets. But he could never quite bring himself to endorse Donald Trump’s false claims of a stolen election.
Moreno had a strong personal story to tell. He comes from a prominent family in his native Colombia. His brother, Luis Alberto Moreno, served as Colombia’s minister of economic development in the 1990s. Luis Alberto then served as Colombian ambassador to the United States, through which he helped negotiate the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement. Since 2005, Luis Alberto Moreno has served as president of the Inter-American Development Bank.
Bernie Moreno made his career in the United States instead. He rose rapidly through the ranks at General Motors. He bought an underperforming Mercedes-Benz dealership outside Cleveland and successfully built one of the largest networks of auto dealerships in the country.
Moreno was appalled by Donald Trump’s rise. Even after Trump consolidated the nomination in 2016, Moreno refused to be associated with that outcome. He acknowledged that Trump could beat Hillary Clinton. He didn’t care. In protest, he ceased making donations to the national Republican campaigns. “Given that I see a future where trump [sic] is the leader of what used to be my party, I’ve sidelined myself,” he wrote to a fundraising consultant. “I will support individual candidates, but can’t support a party led by that maniac.” Trump, he added, was a “lunatic invading the party.”
In debates and speeches, Moreno sometimes allowed glimpses of his earlier, more reasonable, less polarizing self to emerge. But more often, he scrambled to match the rage and resentment trafficked by the two front-runners, Josh Mandel and J. D. Vance. “This is an intentional invasion of our country,” Moreno said of asylum seekers at the southern border in an October 2021 candidates’ forum. He applauded when Mandel declared that the 2020 election had been “stolen” from Trump.
To introduce himself to Ohio voters, Moreno rolled out one of the most expensive ad campaigns in the history of the state’s primary politics, mostly self-funded. His TV ads juxtaposed his own personal feel-good story—shot in his handsome home, alongside his wife and four children—with hard-edged denunciations of “socialism” and “cancel culture.” One ad was called “Buckle Up,” and it was an appropriate name because it offered a lurching, herky-jerky experience that would never be tolerated in one of the fine Mercedes automobiles Moreno sells. He opened the spot by telling the heartwarming story of his family’s arrival in America. Then the soft-strumming guitar music abruptly shifts to angry horns. The family came, Moreno explained, to escape the socialism of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, violent dictators “just like Bernie Sanders and AOC.” And so it went. Back to the strumming guitars. He’s a job creator! Back to the horns: He is fighting cancel culture! A husband and dad who wants to preserve the American dream from scary brown women in hijabs and window-smashing antifa!
The candidates in Ohio are all, of course, tremendous phonies. Mandel, the front-runner, also supported Marco Rubio over Trump in 2016. Running a little behind is Jane Timken, a Harvard-educated lawyer who married into one of Ohio’s most prominent business dynasties. One of her uncles-in-law served as ambassador to Germany under President George W. Bush; she donated to Kasich’s 2016 presidential run. Now her campaign ads tout her as an “America First” “Trump conservative” who “wiped out the Kasich establishment.” As for national-media phenomenon J.D. Vance; well, readers of The Atlantic know his story.
But some of the candidates have weaker gag reflexes than others, and can better choke down all the toads that need to be swallowed to be viable in post-Trump Ohio politics. Moreno could not fake sufficient toad-eating enthusiasm, and so he’s out. But even in defeat, the humiliations have not ceased.
Moreno ended his campaign by flying to Mar-a-Lago. In a written statement, Moreno explained that the race contained too many “Trump candidates,” and pledged his support, not to the winner of the vote, but to whichever candidate earned Donald Trump’s endorsement. In return, he received a condescending pat on the head.
“I was very impressed with Bernie who was tough on illegal immigration which, after the Biden disaster at the Border, has become a big issue for all candidates,” Trump said in a statement. “He has done much for Ohio and loves his State and our great MAGA Movement. His decision will help ensure the MAGA Ticket wins BIG, as it is all over the Country. Thank you, Bernie, for your support and keep fighting!”
One can only imagine what Moreno thinks about these backhanded compliments from a man he once described as a lunatic. Maybe he’d feel better about his race, his exit, and the millions he spent if he had allowed himself to publicly express his true feelings about the leader of his party.