The Senate Challenger With the Biggest Head Start

Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel was the earliest top-tier challenger to announce a campaign, though some Republicans aren’t yet entirely sold on it and Democrats have been targeting him for weeks.

Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel (right), with then-presidential candidate Marco Rubio, talks to workers during a stop at BOC Water Hydraulics in Salem, Ohio, in 2015.
AP Photo/Scott R. Galvin
Kimberly Railey
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Kimberly Railey
May 10, 2017, 8 p.m.

One Re­pub­lic­an’s early and ag­gress­ive cam­paign of­fers a not­able ex­cep­tion to this cycle’s oth­er­wise slow Sen­ate re­cruit­ment sea­son.

Ohio’s Josh Man­del be­came the first top-tier can­did­ate to enter a 2018 Sen­ate race, de­clar­ing his chal­lenge to Demo­crat­ic Sen. Sher­rod Brown only days after Pres­id­ent Trump’s win upen­ded the polit­ic­al en­vir­on­ment. So far, the gamble seems to be pay­ing di­vidends—most Ohio Re­pub­lic­ans view Man­del as a strong fa­vor­ite to win the GOP nom­in­a­tion, as oth­ers doubt he will even face a primary. But, while Man­del’s head start of­fers key ad­vant­ages, his cam­paign hasn’t yet united the Re­pub­lic­an base.

Pop­u­lar Re­pub­lic­an Gov. John Kasich last week sug­ges­ted he may not back Man­del, the state’s two-term treas­urer. Earli­er this month, state law­makers ad­ded a budget amend­ment that would curb con­tro­ver­sial tax­pay­er-fun­ded ads like the ones Man­del ran from his state of­fice, which drew cri­ti­cism from Demo­crats. And one prom­in­ent Re­pub­lic­an, Rep. Pat Tiberi, is still openly weigh­ing a bid, while a wealthy in­vest­ment banker also floats a cam­paign.

“If you add some of the things go­ing on with the le­gis­lature and the back­lash that he might be ex­per­i­en­cing from the Kasich folks, I just think there’s an un­eas­i­ness,” said one Re­pub­lic­an strategist fa­mil­i­ar with the race, who was gran­ted an­onym­ity to speak can­didly.

At the same time, Man­del, an Ir­aq War vet­er­an, boasts high name iden­ti­fic­a­tion and a na­tion­al donor net­work, which are as­sets in a com­pet­it­ive gen­er­al elec­tion. Des­pite Trump’s 9-point vic­tory in the state, Re­pub­lic­ans ex­pect a gruel­ing race against Brown, who built his repu­ta­tion on a pop­u­list brand.

In a po­ten­tial primary, Man­del al­lies—and even de­tract­ors in his party—say it would be dif­fi­cult to run to his right. Since en­ter­ing the race, Man­del has locked up the sup­port of the power­ful Club for Growth and oth­er con­ser­vat­ive groups like Freedom­Works. He has also un­veiled cam­paign lead­ers in all 88 Ohio counties.

I don’t think he’s go­ing to have a primary,” said An­drew Roth, the Club’s vice pres­id­ent of gov­ern­ment af­fairs. “And if he does, it’s not go­ing to be very com­pet­it­ive.”

So far, Man­del is heav­ily align­ing him­self with Trump. His cam­paign an­nounce­ment high­lighted im­mig­ra­tion policy and na­tion­al se­cur­ity, and he of­ten cri­ti­cizes the in­flu­ence of lob­by­ists and spe­cial in­terests. This week, Man­del re­vived a re­form-fo­cused plat­form, pledging to serve only two terms in the Sen­ate if elec­ted.

But ten­sions with­in the party are already de­fin­ing his cam­paign, most re­cently with Kasich’s com­ments that he would not en­dorse Man­del if he proves to be a “di­vider” in the race.

Man­del’s cam­paign did not re­turn a re­quest for com­ment. But his spokes­man told Clev­e­ the team un­der­stands “that Josh’s sup­port for Pres­id­ent Trump may up­set Gov­ernor Kasich” and re­spects the gov­ernor’s de­cision.

Man­del also faced some res­ist­ance from his party when the state House passed a budget bill last week that could have pre­ven­ted him from us­ing $2 mil­lion in agency funds to run ads last year. The spots, which fea­tured Man­del and Ohio State Uni­versity foot­ball coach Urb­an Mey­er, stopped air­ing shortly be­fore he de­clared his Sen­ate bid.

Since then, some Re­pub­lic­ans have said Tiberi would be stronger in the gen­er­al elec­tion than Man­del, who lost to Brown by 6 points in 2012. Tiberi has over $6 mil­lion in his cam­paign ac­count, more than both Brown and Man­del.

“He would prob­ably be a bet­ter can­did­ate against Sher­rod Brown be­cause Josh still looks fairly young, and he still has bag­gage from his last race,” Ohio GOP strategist Bob Kish said. “But Josh is not a Wash­ing­ton per­son. The oth­er prob­lem for Tiberi is that Josh can go raise money around the coun­try.”

Tiberi, for his part, has said only that he is con­tinu­ing to con­sider a cam­paign.

“I’m still think­ing,” Tiberi told Na­tion­al Journ­al in a brief in­ter­view last week. “I’m try­ing to get a health care bill done.”

Tiberi’s en­trance would stir echoes of the pres­id­en­tial primary. Man­del fam­ously backed Sen. Marco Ru­bio over Kasich, and Ru­bio is now sup­port­ing Man­del’s cam­paign. Mean­while, Tiberi used to work for Kasich and later suc­ceeded the gov­ernor in Con­gress.

While the con­gress­man weighs a cam­paign, in­vest­ment banker Mi­chael Gib­bons is also con­sid­er­ing a run. Though Gib­bons is largely un­known in the state, Re­pub­lic­ans say he could self-fund enough to mount a cred­ible chal­lenge.

Some Re­pub­lic­ans feel strongly that there’s an open­ing for an­oth­er can­did­ate, while many oth­ers ac­know­ledge Man­del likely has the edge over any po­ten­tial GOP rival, in part be­cause he has already run against Brown. Man­del proved a pro­lif­ic fun­draiser dur­ing the 2012 cam­paign, haul­ing in $19 mil­lion on his own. Brown and his al­lies charged that Man­del, then 35, was overly am­bi­tious and un­pre­pared for the Sen­ate.

GOP strategists said Man­del’s con­tin­ued ten­ure as state treas­urer since that race has helped him run a more pol­ished cam­paign this cycle.

“He has ma­tured tre­mend­ously in­to that role,” said Ohio Re­pub­lic­an con­sult­ant Mi­chael Hartley. “He’s done fant­ast­ic work as state treas­urer, par­tic­u­larly in his second term.”

As Re­pub­lic­ans wait to see if more can­did­ates run, Brown vowed that the makeup of the GOP field would not af­fect his plans.

“I’m wor­ried about do­ing my job,” he said in a brief in­ter­view in the Cap­it­ol. “I don’t talk about polit­ic­al strategy 18 months out.”

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