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One of the tightest Senate races in the country will play out in Ohio


Control of the U.S. Senate is very much in play this election cycle, and one of the most closely watched races is in Ohio. Three Republicans face off in Tuesday's primary there to try to unseat Democrat Sherrod Brown. Brown was elected to the U.S. House back in 1992, and has held his Senate seat since 2007. David Cohen pretty much lives Ohio politics. He directs the Applied Politics program at the University of Akron. Welcome to the program.

DAVID COHEN: Thank you so much for having me.

RASCOE: So just how vulnerable is Senator Sherrod Brown this election?

COHEN: This is going to be his toughest reelection fight since he was first elected to the Senate in 2006. He knows how to run, you know, for office. He's been immensely successful. People in Ohio respond to his economic populism message and the fact that he is someone who has always fought for working-class folks in the state. And I think that's been part of the Sherrod Brown secret sauce that has kept him in office all these years. And I think it's an advantage that he has over whoever his Republican opponent is going to be.

RASCOE: Well, give us a quick idea of the Republicans who are competing to run against him. Like, who are they, just, you know, quickly?

COHEN: Sure. You know, you have Bernie Moreno, who is a businessman. He doesn't really have any political experience. He's someone that was in the '22 U.S. Senate race here in Ohio. And former President Donald Trump asked him to get out of the race, apparently, you know, with a promise that he would endorse in 2024, which he has. You have Frank LaRose, longtime secretary of state and before that, state senator, someone who kind of built his reputation as being somewhat of a bipartisan figure. But in the last year or two, he has moved to the right of the political spectrum in an attempt to get the Trump endorsement. And then you have Matt Dolan, who is a wealthy businessman who has spent a lot of years in the Ohio legislature, and he's the one that is considered the most centrist of all of the candidates. He's been critical of Donald Trump in the past, and he's someone that I think is counting very much in this primary on the never-Trump Republican vote and independent voters.

RASCOE: How much of a factor do you think former President Trump will play in this race?

COHEN: Oh, I think he will play a very large factor. It's a Republican primary. And those primary voters are - many of them are predisposed to vote for anybody that the former president endorses. And so Trump's endorsement, you can see in 2022, made a huge difference when he decided to support J.D. Vance. And at that point, you know, J.D. Vance became the frontrunner and won the nomination and eventually won the Senate seat.

RASCOE: So what are the other themes resonating with Ohio voters this cycle, or is it just Trump?

COHEN: Well, I mean, I think certainly Trump is part of it. But if we're talking about Ohio, one thing that's been really important recently is the Dobbs decision and the fight over reproductive rights. In Ohio, there were two different times in which voters rejected the Republican Party stance on abortion and reproductive rights. And I think once we get into the general election and past the primary, it's something that certainly the Sherrod Brown campaign is going to be talking about. The Republican nominee, whoever that is, is probably not going to want to talk too much about it, because this is without a doubt an issue that favors the Democratic Party.

RASCOE: Ohio went for Obama twice, and now it seems so long ago because it's solidly Republican. You've covered Ohio politics for over two decades. What struck you about where the state is at now politically?

COHEN: The saying used to be, as Ohio goes, so goes the nation, when we were talking about presidential elections. That doesn't seem to be the case anymore after Donald Trump carried Ohio by a pretty significant margin in 2016. And Republican candidates statewide have had a lot of success in terms of holding the governor's office and some of those other statewide positions. The presidential campaigns are probably not going to pay too much attention to the state of Ohio during the general election, and I think it's just a consequence of Ohio, compared to other states, becoming older, you know, whiter and less educated. You know, that is something that favors the Republican Party and definitely hurts the Democratic Party.

RASCOE: What are you watching for next as this Ohio Senate race takes shape?

COHEN: I'm going to be following the money. You know, there's going to be a ridiculous amount spent on the U.S. Senate race in Ohio. Because both parties understand that control of the U.S. Senate is likely going to begin and end in Ohio, and maybe one or two other states. If Democrats can hold on to this Senate seat, they've got a good shot at, you know, holding a very slim majority in the U.S. Senate. If Republicans are able to flip Ohio, it's going to make it much easier for them to wrest control away from the Democrats.

RASCOE: That's David Cohen of the University of Akron. Thank you so much for joining us.

COHEN: Thank you. I really appreciate it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.