What’s the Deal with Matt Dolan?
Sometimes, when headlines about the oft-prophesied war inside the Republican Party show up in my news feed or on some nearby TV, I think about The Invisible Bridge.
Rick Perlstein’s third history of American conservatism — and, for my money, his absolute finest — tells arguably the least-known of them all. Instead of zeroing in on the reign of Nixon or the revolution of Goldwater, Perlstein builds an entire narrative of the mid-1970s around Ronald Reagan’s kamikaze mission for the 1976 Republican nomination. The Republicans already had a provisional nominee; in fact, they already had a president in moderate Nixon-era understudy Gerald Ford. No matter; Reagan nearly toppled the greatest Watergate Baby of them all, atop a veritable oak tree of conservative activists whose conflicts with the Ford administration ranged from the First Lady’s acceptance of her daughters hypothetical sex partners to a conspiracy theory about the sale of Panama. This was the real civil war, the one that reversed and reloaded the direction of the GOP for decades to come.
Why, you must be wondering, would I tell you this story? Why would I direct you to an 880-page work of historical prose on post-Saigon politics in this day and age? What on earth could the exploits of Helms and Sheehy tell us about these days, the era of Vance and Cheney?
My fellow Americans, meet Matt Dolan.
Matt Dolan, the owner of baseball’s Cleveland Guardians (nee Indians), mounted a Senate campaign in the state of Ohio this spring. He was third — a distant third — in a race that saw the frontrunners, JD Vance and Josh Mandel, try and remake themselves in the image of America’s 45th president. Said former president could only pick one, though, and the one was Vance, leaving Mandel to keep his song-and-dance routine going for absolutely no reason in the campaign’s last three weeks.
Matt Dolan? Matt Dolan didn’t much care for the former president’s endorsement. He wasn’t some John Kasich type, sure. He’d voted to reelect the president in 2020, he insisted, and he would do it again if he could. But Matt Dolan also thought that his party’s leader’s reaction to that election was to lie, and that the riot he incited at the Capitol was “a failure of leadership.” When Vance and Mandel made pilgrimages to Palm Beach to try and win the retired real estate kingpin’s approval, Matt Dolan announced, loudly, that he cared about Ohio voters and Ohio issues, which is to say that he would not be following them southward.
For these and other crimes, the powers that be in Mar-a-Lago put out a statement declaring Matt Dolan “unfit” to represent the Buckeye State in the US Senate. So, he finished third, a whisker behind Mandel and a 5 o’clock shadow behind JD Vance.
Matt Dolan never had a chance, and he finished behind both candidates angling hard for the former president’s approval. For some, Dolan’s defeat was proof positive that the GOP of old is dead, dead, dead. Why wouldn’t Republicans looking to rebuke their most recent president just hold their noses and vote for Tim Ryan in November?
Fair enough — sending Tim Ryan to the Senate would still count as a volley against the centerpiece of modern politics. But I was faced with another question, as Vance taxied his way to the general election: Why aren’t more Republicans trying to be like Matt Dolan?
Thanks to the events outlined in Perlstein’s Invisible Bridge — namely, Reagan’s transformation of Republican campaigns when he tried to eject Ford — the forces that actually preside over the party machine are homogenous and insular. They have not gotten significantly less homogenous and insular as the years rolled swiftly by. To win a Republican primary in this day and age, or in any day and age after the Korean War, a candidate has to run the table with a very limited pool of people — older, whiter, you get the idea — and basically no others. In short, if they like a politician, their institutions will like the politician, too, at least in public. The rest is mere algebra.
For millions of such Americans, the former president was a figurehead for all that they were — he spoke for them, fought for them, was them, is them. He was the only institution they needed. Even as higher education, the media, and the intelligentsia all turned their backs on them, the president was there for them. They won’t let him go, civil disturbances and sideshows aside, because to do so would feel like an admission about who he is and who they are. Basically, if your reformation runs through someone like Liz Cheney or Adam Kinzinger, I’m pleased to inform you that the Democratic Party seems to be taking applications from conservatives the world over.
Matt Dolan, though no JD Vance, is no Liz Cheney, either. On the one hand, he’s got no problem holding forth on the failures of party and leader alike, as fond of them — and, dang, how could he not be? — as he might be. On the other hand, he does have a problem if you say he’s against party or leader, because — he assures you — he’s really not. Matt Dolan is just looking out for the people he loves in the place he loves, and if someone steps on either, even someone he — pinky swear — likes, he will call them out. For your sakes, Ohio.
Sure, you could put on a show for cable TV in hopes of an invite to some swampy golf course in the sweltering Sunshine State, er, sun. But why do that, when you could perform for the people who actually decide your fate, and explain that they’re your priority, no matter how conservative you are?
The easy reason is that the former president’s endorsement packs a punch, arguably the largest punch of any endorsement from anyone, ever. Taylor Swift — who’s also built a cultlike following by othering the masses, only she does it in breakup songs — couldn’t even push Phil Bredesen to the lead of the Tennessee senate race in 2018, thanks to the prophet of forthcoming Fire and Fury. If you can get an endorsement from Florida’s Most Famous Florida Man, your ticket out of the Republican primary is, if not punched, certainly bought. (Fraudulent exchange of value is one of our last premier’s calling cards.)
Wherever you are, my Republican friend, your grassroots operation probably hasn’t produced a Matt Dolan. Oh, Reagan? Invisible Bridge Regan? They stopped trading in Reagan years ago, after the base started ranking Reagan’s fifth successor ahead of Abraham Lincoln. Finally, whoever the Liz Cheney wing of the party summoned to be the moral choice on the ballot is probably sitting right around 2 percent right now, assuming they’re not an incumbent — like, coincidentally, Cheney herself. If you have a Dolan-like figure on your ballot, and the Cheney doppelganger isn’t competitive, consider this a benediction: Go for it.
To my Democratic friends: This article wasn’t for you, but I’ll point something out anyway. Tim Ryan can abso-freaking-lutely win in Ohio, just like Connor Lamb can win in Pennsylvania and Henry Cuellar can win in whatever part of Texas he’s in. You should really stop kidding yourself and support Liz Cheney. And Joe Manchin. And every other untethered conservative in states that no one to the left of Father Coughlin will ever represent on the Republican side. This probably isn’t the best time to tell you to let some of your less progressive birds fly. But, c’mon, West Virginia or Ohio might certainly be the place, if nowhere else.
What’s that? What am I going to do? Funny you should ask; absolutely nothing. Not to play the hypocrite, but I can’t vote in primaries. State law.
See you in November.