Ralph King, a grassroots GOP activist and former delegate for Donald Trump, hasn’t committed to a candidate in Ohio’s highly anticipated 2024 contest for a U.S. Senate seat. But there is one he’s already ruled out: Secretary of State Frank LaRose.
“He’s wherever he needs to be, depending on who he’s talking to,” King said of LaRose, who has overseen Ohio elections since 2019.
Few Republicans these days are threading a needle quite as microscopic as Ohio’s chief election officer. LaRose is not an original MAGA Republican, declining to endorse Trump even in 2020. But LaRose made a point of backing him for the first time this summer, ahead of a dinner at Trump’s New Jersey golf club. LaRose isn’t as far right as many Ohio Republicans, but this year he became a leading proponent of a doomed ballot measure aimed at making it harder to enshrine abortion rights in Ohio’s constitution. LaRose does not directly deny the results of the 2020 presidential election but has noticeably dialed up his rhetoric on election fraud since then.
Skeptics of LaRose, one of the leading candidates to challenge Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown in a battleground state, do not quite buy his slow march from occasional Trump critic to MAGA believer. LaRose’s main competition for the nomination is businessman Bernie Moreno, who aligned himself with key members of Trump’s menagerie of allies, including former Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell and Arizona’s Kari Lake, the queen of election denial. The two men appear locked in a battle for Trump’s affections ― and possible endorsement.
“The switch — I guess we’re getting used to that with people like [Ohio Sen.] J.D. Vance, that people are changing who they are,” said David Pepper, the chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party from 2015 to 2020, who was an outspoken critic and sometimes legal opponent of LaRose over ballot access and GOP-led gerrymandering. Pepper, who has sat in court hearings and on panels with LaRose, called his transformation “disturbing” and said, “This was somebody who literally said a couple of years ago he wouldn’t endorse in any campaigns because he didn’t want the secretary of state position to be questionable.”
LaRose is one of only three GOP secretaries seeking a promotion to higher office in 2024, and the only one running for U.S. Senate. But LaRose, unlike West Virginia’s Mac Warner, who is running to replace Republican Gov. Jim Justice, has not called the 2020 election stolen — failing a major MAGA litmus test as he seeks, at the very least, for Trump to say neutral in the Ohio race. Warner was among the first secretaries of state to question the legitimacy of Joe Biden’s victory, siding with the majority of GOP voters who still refuse to accept the outcome of the last presidential election.
Missouri’s Jay Ashcroft, another gubernatorial candidate, has touted election security in his state and said that Biden was “duly elected by our presidential electors.” But Ashcroft raised eyebrows in January when he met with MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell, an election denier who travels the country sowing distrust over voting machines.
LaRose, to date, hasn’t gone as far as Warner. Though LaRose’s office did respond to some of HuffPost’s questions for this article, it did not comment on whether he currently believes that the 2020 presidential election was stolen.
Ohio’s chief elections officer has gone from chiding both parties for challenging election results without evidence — calling it “problematic” and “irresponsible” in the weeks following the 2020 election — to conceding that Trump may have a point, even as LaRose’s own supporters praise him for the lack of voter fraud in Ohio. “It’s an even bigger problem in other states where laws & leaders are weak,” LaRose tweeted in February of 2022. “President Trump is right to say voter fraud is a serious problem.”
In March, LaRose pulled Ohio from a bipartisan voting-data partnership that aims to prevent double voting but that Trump claims “pumps the rolls” for Democrats — after LaRose had praised it only a month earlier. The secretary of state attributed the move to security concerns. Ohio has since partnered with Florida, Virginia and West Virginia — all Republican-led states — on a separate data-sharing initiative. Asked about the switch, a spokesperson for the secretary of state’s office told HuffPost, “Voter fraud is low in Ohio, but we will not stop protecting our elections in any way possible.”
LaRose is also looking beyond election fraud to woo Trump. In a statement Thursday calling himself “the Republican front-runner,” LaRose addressed the Biden administration’s use of executive power to continue building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, whose completion Trump vowed to achieve as president. “President Biden’s announcement that he’s going to resume building President Donald Trump’s border wall is too little too late,” he said in a statement.
‘Twisting Himself Up A Little Bit’
LaRose’s end game is clear to many observers: Last year, Trump’s endorsement lent some MAGA heft to author and then-candidate J.D. Vance, helping him become Ohio’s junior senator despite being anything but a Trump cheerleader before running for office. Vance has since more than come around on Trump, becoming one of his closest allies in the Senate.
However, LaRose’s detractors don’t see him pulling off the same feat as convincingly. “He’s a chameleon. This guy will literally support anything and everything he needs to,” said King, who is no fan of Vance either. In July, King lodged an election complaint against LaRose, alleging he was running his campaign before officially filing with the Federal Election Commission. LaRose’s campaign did not comment on the complaint.
“He’s a chameleon. This guy will literally support anything and everything he needs to.”
– Ohio Republican Ralph King, a former Trump delegate
LaRose didn’t endorse Trump in either of his previous presidential bids, claiming, at least in 2020, that he wanted to appear neutral as Ohio’s chief elections officer. In 2016, LaRose, then a state senator, tapped his background in campaign advance work to help former Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who ran for president that year as one of the original Never Trump Republicans. LaRose, keeping his powder dry, backed Kasich in the primary but went on to help with Trump’s inauguration in 2017.
The 44-year-old Green Beret is especially skilled at handling campaign logistics, said one Republican who has known him for years. This same person also described LaRose as an “obsessed micromanager” — a trait alluded to in a Columbus Dispatch piece on high turnover in LaRose’s government office, which former staffers described as intense, understaffed and “[lacking] humanity.”
Just weeks after his July campaign launch, LaRose fired Rob Nichols, a communications staffer in the secretary of state’s office and longtime GOP operative, following the discovery of anti-Trump tweets from a burner account linked to Nichols. Nichols did not respond to requests for comment from HuffPost, and LaRose’s office said it does not comment on personnel matters.
“I think Frank’s definitely trying to position himself to be considered” for Trump’s endorsement, the longtime LaRose friend noted, “and in fact twisting himself up a little bit.”
Donald Trump Was ‘Right’
Moreno is now his biggest competition. A businessman with close ties to the former president, Moreno ran in last year’s primary against Vance, bowing out at Trump’s behest once it became clear he wasn’t getting his endorsement — but not before releasing a television ad in late 2021, called “Truth,” about the presidential election. “Donald Trump says the 2020 election was stolen, and he’s right,” Moreno says, looking directly into the camera.
Moreno has already lent his campaign $3 million. And in a sign he’s a favorite for Trump’s endorsement, Vance endorsed him a month into his latest bid in an apparent effort to head off a “bloody primary.”
Meanwhile, a third GOP candidate, state Sen. Matt Dolan, whose family owns the Cleveland Guardians baseball team, has no interest in bending a knee to Trump, leaving him with an uncertain path in a GOP contest, despite finishing third last year in the primary to replace Sen. Rob Portman.
“The Trump endorsement in Ohio absolutely matters, and I guarantee you anyone running for office here would welcome that,” said Mike Gonidakis, president of Ohio Right to Life, a group fighting a November ballot measure to codify abortion rights that, if successful, may create headwinds for Republicans in 2024. Gonidakis said both LaRose and Moreno are in the running for an endorsement from his group, a powerful ally in the anti-abortion community.
As the behind-the-scenes jockeying for Trump’s affections continues, a source close to LaRose’s campaign suggested it would personally benefit Trump to go with the elections officer, for obvious reasons: “If you are the president and you are fighting four legal battles, most of them centered around the validity of the election — and you’re most likely going to be on the general election ballot in a state you cannot win the White House without — are you going to do anything to antagonize the guy counting the votes?” this person said. (LaRose and other secretaries of state, while they generally oversee elections across multiple counties, do not personally count votes.)
“If we had the opportunity to take Trump’s endorsement today, I’d take it in a heartbeat because the race is over,” the LaRose source added.
‘Probably Should’ve Won It By More Than That’
Trump has made it especially fraught for GOP elections officials like LaRose to run on their records, even if Trump won their states without issue. Many GOP voters tend to believe the false tenets of Trump’s “big lie,” including that “dead people” voted in the 2020 presidential election and that voting by mail is not secure.
At a rally for Vance in April 2022 that LaRose also attended (and was booed at), Trump suggested he may have won Ohio by a bigger margin than he actually did in the last election — 8 percentage points, or roughly 476,000 votes. “In 2016 and 2020, we won Ohio in a landslide. We won it by a lot of votes. Probably should’ve won it by more than that,” Trump said, hours after endorsing LaRose’s reelection campaign.
LaRose has consistently maintained that, although he cannot speak for other states, Ohio is conducting its elections securely and efficiently. Greg Simpson, a LaRose backer and GOP state central committee member from the Cincinnati area, said LaRose’s record of running “clean” elections in Ohio is the main reason he’s backing him in the primary. “The guy ran it flawlessly, and that’s a true test,” Simpson said of the 2020 election. “And he’s under a microscope every day.”
If he wins, LaRose could become the first secretary of state elevated to a higher office since 2018, when former Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp was elected governor ― with Trump’s backing — in a race that Democrat Stacey Abrams alleged was tainted by voter suppression. Kemp later broke with Trump over the 2020 election after Trump called Kemp’s replacement as secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, looking for more votes weeks after the results were final. That led to charges against Trump and 18 co-defendants who are implicated in a sweeping scheme to overturn the 2020 election.
“The guy ran it flawlessly, and that’s a true test.”
– LaRose supporter Greg Simpson
LaRose’s critics have noted that, like Kemp in 2018, he will be overseeing a highly contested election in which he’s also running.
“We pay you to do a full-time job. Do your full-time job,” Moreno said on a Columbus radio show in late August, suggesting that LaRose should step down. “If they want to run for a different office, they should resign.”
The Ohio Democratic Party, which has relentlessly targeted Brown’s potential opponents, alluded to the possible negative consequences of LaRose serving as secretary of state while running: “Frank LaRose will do anything to further his political ambitions, no matter how much it hurts — or costs — Ohioans,” spokesperson Reeves Oyster said.
The winner to emerge from the GOP scrum in March will face Democrat Sherrod Brown, the last non-judicial Democrat elected statewide in Ohio and a unicorn among battleground-state Democrats — as well as a former secretary of state himself. Before term limits, Brown was twice elected Ohio secretary of state but lost his third reelection bid in 1990, the only election that Brown has ever lost. Even Republicans acknowledge that beating him now is a tall task for whoever they nominate.
“[Brown] is gonna be a hard target. He comes off as a working-class guy,” said Simpson, the LaRose backer, “and people like that.”