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
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 Cleveland.com 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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