Ohio Senate Race Tests Trump’s Appeal

In a key swing state, Josh Mandel is betting that voters want a cheerleader for the president in the Senate. Democrats hope they can still win over blue-collar voters with their traditional platform.

Sen. Sherrod Brown speaks on Capitol Hill on Jan. 19.
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
Josh Kraushaar
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Josh Kraushaar
Sept. 12, 2017, 8 p.m.

Last month, in my overview of the Senate landscape, I left off one race that both parties are aggressively contesting: the Ohio showdown between Sen. Sherrod Brown and state Treasurer Josh Mandel. The race, being fought in the country’s seminal battleground state, will offer a telling test of whether Trumpism extends beyond the president himself.

Ohio, long a bellwether in national politics, has become ever more friendly to Republicans in recent years. It’s older and whiter than most battleground states, and, with Barack Obama out of office, political analysts don’t expect a strong African-American turnout in the midterms. Outside of Brown’s lone senatorial victory, Republicans have won every statewide office since 2006. The Buckeye State gave Trump an 8-point victory last year, nearly as large as his win in ruby-red Texas. The president’s job approval rating (47 percent), according to Gallup’s yearlong tally, is healthier in Ohio than in any other state that Obama won twice.

Brown is one of the few Democrats who has shown that he can reliably win over white blue-collar voters during his Senate campaigns even while maintaining a liberal voting record. He was on Hillary Clinton’s short list as a running mate in 2016, and has been already touted as a prospective 2020 presidential candidate.

The likely GOP nominee, the 39-year-old Mandel, has tied his fortunes to President Trump even though his background is awfully conventional. Mandel served in the Marine Corps during the Iraq War, a biographical distinction that helped him win a legislative seat around Cleveland. His profile was tailor-made for future success: a military veteran and Jewish Republican with crossover appeal. He was elected treasurer in 2010, and then ran unsuccessfully against Brown in an expensive 2012 contest. That year, he ran as a typical conservative Republican, and was championed by conventional politicians such as Sen. Marco Rubio.

But this year, Mandel has sounded like a Trump cheerleader, praising the president’s restrictionist views on immigration, slamming the bias of the mainstream media, and defending the alt-right while criticizing the Anti-Defamation League. He’s cast himself as a fierce Trump loyalist, willing to defend the president and his agenda even though Ohio’s governor, John Kasich, has been one of the president’s chief GOP critics. (Mandel is facing a primary opponent in banker Mike Gibbons; he remains the favorite to win the nomination.)

The stakes are high: If Brown wins, he’ll have found a formula to regain the support of onetime Democratic voters who defected to Trump in last year’s election. A Mandel win would demonstrate that Ohio could provide a crucial foothold for a possible Trump reelection campaign. Internal polls from both campaigns show that the election starts off very competitive, with Brown weighed down by the state’s GOP drift.

The race is as bitter as they come. Like Trump, Mandel has become one of the most polarizing figures in Ohio politics. Democrats loathe his transparent ambition, shameless pandering to Trump voters, and ethically questionable conduct in the treasurer’s office. One of Mandel’s strategists joyfully called him a “relentless fighter,” relishing his clashes with Democrats and many moderate Republicans aligned with Kasich. Citing those same episodes, a top Brown ally called Mandel a “horrible monster” and “uniquely terrible.”

As treasurer, Mandel’s office ran an expensive advertising campaign promoting savings accounts for people with disabilities. The $2 million ad blitz, which featured Mandel and Ohio State football coach Urban Meyer, gave Mandel plenty of taxpayer-funded face time just before he announced for the Senate. And it pushed the limits of state law, which was intended to limit the scale of such statewide promotions to $50,000 spots. (Mandel’s office bought the spots in many small chunks to skirt the regulations.)

Mandel’s evolution from mainstream conservative to Trumpian has been one of the significant Senate storylines of the year. His campaign is confident that his populist positioning will broaden his appeal to working-class voters who defected from the Democrats last year. Meanwhile, Brown’s strategy is to remain loyal to his time-tested campaign playbook, not changing his liberal views even as the state has gotten more conservative.

The race figures to be an important test of whether there’s a market for Trump’s ideology without Trump’s outsized personality. As a candidate, Trump was loud, brash, and offered nonstop access to the mainstream media. By contrast, Mandel isn’t particularly charismatic and usually avoids the press while sticking to his campaign script.

Republicans are convinced (or concerned, depending on their political orientation) that candidates will need to harness Trump’s populist bluster to win primaries. But Mandel is one of the few candidates who is betting that the path to winning a general election—in a swing state—is by emulating the president. If he’s right, that would send shockwaves through the political establishment.

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