Ohio Republican candidates who are vying to take on Democratic incumbent Sen. Sherrod Brown clashed over border security and drone strikes in Mexico during Monday’s first statewide debate.
Facing off at WJW Fox 8 Studios in Cleveland, businessman Bernie Moreno, Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose and state Sen. Matt Dolan generally agreed on a few issues, including calling for fully securing the U.S.-Mexico border, but then quickly clashed upon delving into the immigration crisis further.
Dolan accused Moreno, who was endorsed by former President Trump, of wanting “to militarize the federal government and deport children” for his stance calling for deporting anybody in the country illegally. LaRose called earlier Monday for President Biden to deploy three military divisions to the border, which Dolan said was irresponsible.
“We need to work with the Mexican government, we need to be tough with the Mexican government,” Dolan said.
Dolan accused Moreno of previously working with former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s organization to ask for a path to citizenship and residency for illegal immigration. “He won awards in Cleveland for these positions. Now that he wants your vote in a Republican primary, he wants to militarize the federal government and deport children,” Dolan said.
“What’s remarkable is that the position that Matt holds today is that we should give amnesty to illegal immigrants. That’s what’s remarkable. Somebody who’s been in politics virtually his entire life still believes that amnesty is the right answer,” Moreno countered before the moderators turned to LaRose.
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Bernie Moreno is acknowledged at a rally with former President Donald Trump at the Delaware County Fairgrounds, on April 23, 2022 in Delaware, Ohio. (AP Photo/Joe Maiorana, File)
LaRose, who noted he would be the first Green Beret elected to the Senate, defended his support for a strong military strategy and for deporting anybody who came to the country during the Biden presidency.
“It’s a full-scale invasion now,” LaRose said. “We must stop the bleeding. And that is something that could be done within a matter of days really. After that, it means building the wall. It means completing President Trump’s wall all the way from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific Ocean. It also means no amnesty. If your first act in this country is to break our laws, you should never be rewarded with citizenship, birthright citizenship, any government benefits. We don’t want to secure the border because we hate the people on the other side. We want to secure the border because we love our country. And it’s drugs and crime that are pouring across that border. They’re killing our fellow Americans. We must act now.”
Moreno, who also opposes birthright citizenship, called LaRose “slick” for couching his support for deportation.
When asked if he would support U.S. drone strikes in Mexico, LaRose said, “100%. The definition of a foreign terrorist organization is a group that’s willing to kill our fellow Americans. These cartels are killing over 200 Americans a day with the fentanyl that they’re bringing into this country. We know that this comes from China mixed together in Mexico. We must define these cartels as foreign terrorist organizations and use the full force of the U.S. military and the U.S. federal government to kill them so that they can’t kill our fellow Americans.”
Republican Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose speaks during an election night watch party, Nov. 8, 2022 in Columbus, Ohio. (AP Photo/Jay LaPrete, File)
Moreno ripped LaRose’s comments, arguing that such “irresponsible rhetoric” will encourage Mexico to elect an anti-American president, and instead, the U.S. should work with Mexico to help them wipe out the cartels themselves with the incentive of becoming the United States’ largest trading partner without the threat of “we’re going to indiscriminately bomb you.”
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During the debate, Moreno emphasized that he is a “political outsider” — like Trump — running against two “career politicians.” He told moderators Colleen Marshall and Joe Toohey that even a criminal conviction of Trump, who faces four separate indictments, would not cause him to reject the former president’s endorsement.
Both Moreno and LaRose described the Trump lawsuits as politically motivated and said there is a two-tiered justice system in the U.S. that targets Biden’s political enemies. The debate moderators noted that Moreno originally posted that Jan. 6 demonstrators were “morons” and “criminals,” then later joined those who described them as “political prisoners.”
Moreno said there were two distinct groups of people in question, while Dolan called that an attempt by Moreno to “reinvent himself.” He also took aim at Moreno for shredding documents as he faced wage theft lawsuits in Massachusetts. “Public service is about trust, making sure that you’re going to follow through with what you do,” he said, also accusing LaRose of originally saying Ohio’s elections were secure but later, while trying to woo Trump’s endorsement, saying that they had problems.
Republican U.S. Senate candidate Matt Dolan talks with reporters after conceding to JD Vance at a watch party in Independence, Ohio, Tuesday, May 3, 2022. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar, File)
Moreno, pointing to Dolan, replied, “If you want Liz Cheney to represent you in the United States Senate from Ohio, here’s your choice, because that’s where his position comes from. The reality is it’s sad to see you repeating left-wing liberal talking points.” Cheney, a Republican former House member from Wyoming, has been deeply critical of Trump.
Democrats said the debate showed none of the Republican candidates would “fight for anybody but themselves.”
“In between every barb and insult lobbed at tonight’s debate, Bernie Moreno, Frank LaRose, and Matt Dolan made it clear that they have no interest in fighting for Ohioans or the issues most important to their daily lives,” Ohio Democratic Party spokesperson Katie Smith said in a statement.
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LaRose sought to position himself as the middle-class candidate in a fight against two wealthy opponents. Moreno is a millionaire who made his money building a high-end Cleveland car dealership, and Dolan’s family owns the Cleveland Guardians baseball team; both have provided millions in loans to their own campaigns.
On abortion, all three candidates said they see a role for the federal government in setting a limit — generally around 15 weeks. Dolan was the only one who mentioned supporting exceptions after that point. They said Ohio’s Issue 1, which passed in November with 57% of the vote, was too extreme. Dolan alleged it would allow the return of “late-term abortions.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.