VANDALIA, Ohio — Ohio’s Republican Senate primary was already a mean-spirited and mudslinging affair, careening viciously toward a tight and bitter finish.

And then Donald Trump came to town.

The former president touched down for a Saturday afternoon rally to boost Bernie Moreno, who despite snagging his endorsement three months ago has failed to distance himself decisively from his GOP rivals.

Trump was on the attack, whipping the crowd into a frenzy against state Sen. Matt Dolan, whose family owns the Cleveland Guardians. Dolan’s emergence as Moreno’s strongest opponent, accentuated in the last week with endorsements from Gov. Mike DeWine and former Sen. Rob Portman, has reinforced distinct battle lines: MAGA vs. Ohio’s old-guard conservative establishment, which pales as moderate in comparison to Trump’s politics. 

In his 90-minute speech at Dayton International Airport, Trump called Moreno a “fantastic guy” and hammered Dolan as a “RINO” — or Republican in name only.

“Bernie is running against a weak RINO named Matt Dolan. He is trying to become the next Mitt Romney,” Trump said, referring to the Utah senator, who was the 2012 Republican presidential nominee and is now a prominent Trump critic. “I think Mitt Romney is his hero.” 

Trump reminded the crowd that Dolan ran, unsuccessfully, as a Democrat for a state legislative seat more than 30 years ago. Trump also complained about how the Dolan family’s Major League Baseball franchise changed its name from the Indians to Guardians in 2021, amid concerns that the old name was offensive to Native Americans.

“He’s easily pushed around by woke left-wing lunatics who renamed his family’s baseball team,” said Trump, who surveyed the audience for their opinions on the rebranding and elicited a strong response in favor of the old name. “My attitude is anybody who changes the name from the Cleveland Indians to the Cleveland Guardians should not be a senator.”

Dolan’s father, Larry, is the principal owner of the team, and his brother, Paul, serves as CEO. Though he has worked closely with the team, Dolan has said he had no involvement with the name change.

Trump did not refer to the third candidate in the GOP primary, Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose.

Moreno, a political novice and former car dealer, is hoping to ride Trump’s support into a general election matchup against Sen. Sherrod Brown, one of the most vulnerable Democrats on the ballot this fall. Trump’s appearance — three days before the primary and less than two weeks after a source close to the former president said that an Ohio rally for Moreno was “highly unlikely” — created the feel of another salesman being called in to close the deal.

The results of Tuesday’s primary could have profound ramifications for Trump in a state he won twice by 8 point margins. If Moreno wins, Trump can take credit for carrying an inexperienced candidate to victory. If Moreno loses, Trump will face questions about the value of his endorsement in tough races, in this case the first competitive 2024 Senate primary in which he picked a favorite. 

There have been few independent polls in the race, but two surveys over the last week showed a tight race between Moreno and Dolan. The hostile nature of the race escalated Friday, after the Associated Press reported on a potential link between a Moreno email address and an account with AdultFriendFinder, a website known for arranging sexual encounters. 

The AP did not verify that Moreno himself had set up the account and quoted a letter provided by Moreno’s attorney, which the campaign also provided to NBC News, in which the former intern, Dan Ricci, wrote that he “created the … account in question” as a “prank” and apologized “to him and his family for any harm this foolishness has caused them.”

NBC News has not independently corroborated the report. Ricci did not respond to a request for comment.

“The email address in question was not Bernie’s personal email address, but rather an email address that appeared on company websites and literature and was managed by staff,” Moreno attorney Charles Harder said in a statement the campaign provided to NBC News. “Multiple people had access to it, including this intern. Bernie Moreno had nothing to do with the AFF account. According to metadata, the AFF account was never even used — there were no communications or contacts sent to or from any other AFF accounts, and no photos or content were uploaded to it. The AFF account existed for less than a half-day, 16 years ago.”

Trump spokesperson Steven Cheung issued a statement defending Moreno and calling the AP report “shameful.” And Andrew Cornu, the founder of Adult Friend Finder, posted Saturday on X that, after his own review, he found the situation “consistent with a prank or someone just checking out the site.”

But the surfacing of the account, which according to The AP was set up to attract “young guys” and had been the subject of rumors for weeks among GOP operatives, gave rivals a late opening to argue that a Moreno nomination would ensure Brown’s re-election.

A new ad released Friday by the Dolan-aligned Buckeye Leadership Fund emphasizes some of the most salacious aspects of The AP report. The 30-second spot is running statewide on TV and radio as part of the PAC’s existing advertising plan, spokesperson Chris Pack said.

“Creepy, huh? Moreno is damaged goods,” the narrator in the ad says before referring to a Democratic strategy to meddle in the primary with an ad promoting Moreno’s conservative positions. “That’s why Democrats are spending millions to prop up Moreno in the Republican primary, so Sherrod Brown can beat him in November.” 

Dolan sidestepped questions about the AP report Friday before a GOP dinner in Salem, south of Youngstown, and said he was not aware of the super PAC’s ad. LaRose, speaking with reporters after the dinner, was more eager to address the issue.

“I’ve been saying from the beginning that I don’t think Mr. Moreno is trustworthy,” he said. “And I’m not going to say much more about it other than, you know, obviously, if that’s true, it’s a horrible thing for his family, and I keep them in our prayers.”

A source close to Moreno’s campaign said at least 10 TV stations have refused to run the Buckeye Leadership Fund ad following cease-and-desist notices from Moreno’s legal counsel. Bridget Moreno, the candidate’s wife, issued a statement Saturday calling on Dolan to denounce the ad. A Dolan spokesperson did not respond to requests for comment.

Trump briefly alluded to the matter Saturday.

“They’re doing a number on him,” Trump said, dismissing the article as “disinformation and misinformation.”

Backed by $10 million in personal loans and millions more from friendly super PACs, Dolan has run an aggressive ad campaign to promote his policy positions and attack his rivals. A lawyer whose family struck it rich in cable television before buying Cleveland’s Major League Baseball franchise, Dolan hasn’t run away from Trump. But he hasn’t run close to him, either, acknowledging that he has a much different personality. That has opened him up to the “RINO” attacks.

Though he didn’t mention Dolan by name at Saturday’s rally, Moreno in his remarks noted how his rival did not think the debate over U.S. border security should distract from support for Ukraine and mocked him for an endorsement from The Plain Dealer, a Cleveland newspaper.

“You’re going to go vote on Tuesday and send a clear message to the swamp RINOs that they’re done,” Moreno told the audience.

LaRose, who entered the race with high name recognition thanks to two statewide election wins, has struggled to compete with the independently wealthy Dolan and Moreno on the money front. The secretary of state has relied heavily on an allied super PAC to promote him, but that group, Leadership for Ohio, has recently spent its money to attack the other candidates. Moreno and Dolan have trained their fire on each other in the final days, largely ignoring LaRose. 

“I mean, you always want to have more resources to get your message out there,” LaRose said Friday after the dinner in Salem. “But Ohioans know BS when they hear it.”

Throughout the week, voters and activists at GOP events across Ohio described a two-person race between Moreno and Dolan.

“I would say that this is a crucial time for the state of Ohio,” Sherri Garner Brumbaugh, a Moreno supporter, said at this week’s Lake County Republican Party dinner in Eastlake, near Cleveland. “So we are going to be traditional old school Republicans, or we’re going to change ourselves as Republicans. I’m looking for that change in Washington, and Bernie Moreno is going to bring it.”

Amy Sabath, a GOP operative who has consulted for DeWine and Dolan and attended the same dinner, explained why she was partial to Dolan.

“The ultra-conservative vote is probably going to split between Moreno and LaRose,” Sabath said. “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. I’ve always considered myself an ultra-conservative Republican, but I just believe in the right candidate, and the right candidate is Dolan.”

The challenge for Dolan — knitting together a winning coalition of GOP voters that includes those who are ready to move on from Trump — was on display this week as he attempted to win over voters in Aurora, a suburb near Cleveland. 

“My heart says until Trump is gone I will never vote Republican again,” Reed Fuller told Dolan after the candidate knocked on his door Tuesday. “Sorry.”

Aurora Mayor Ann Womer Benjamin, who accompanied Dolan, tried to vouch for him. 

“Well, he’s not a Trump person,” she interjected.

“I know, I realize that,” Fuller said. “I’m sorry. If I had to choose between the three, I’d be with you.”

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