Can GOP’s Mandel Ride Trump Wave in Ohio?

If you’re looking for a 2018 Republican Senate challenger who has embraced Donald Trump, you need look no further than Ohio’s Josh Mandel.

Trump’s surprising eight-point victory over Hillary Clinton in the Buckeye State would seem to augur well for a Trump-like messenger, but Mandel’s prospects against incumbent Sherrod Brown (D) look increasingly iffy given the emerging landscape of next year’s midterm elections.

Mandel, who was elected state treasurer in 2010 and reelected four years later, lost to Brown by six points, 51%-45%, in 2012. That was double Barack Obama’s three-point win (51%-48%) over Mitt Romney in Ohio. The GOP hopeful, who served in Iraq with the Marine Reserves, has oozed political ambition since he first ran for student government president at Ohio State University. After college, he was elected to the Lyndhurst city council and then won two elections for the Ohio House.

Mandel made it very clear early on that he wanted a re-match against Brown, and party leaders rallied around him. But while the state treasurer is a proven vote-getter and experienced candidate in a Trump state, he faces an uphill run. (Mandel also faces another pro-Trump GOP hopeful in the race for the Republican nomination, businessman Mike Gibbons.)

During the Obama years, the midterm election dynamic helped Republican candidates, who could run for change and against the Democratic president. But now, with the GOP firmly in charge and an unpopular Republican sitting in the Oval Office, Democratic incumbents, challengers and open-seat hopefuls will tap the electorate’s nervousness about and/or disappointment with Trump.

Brown, like Mandel, got into politics early. He served eight years in the Ohio House, got elected twice as Ohio secretary of state, and served seven terms in the U.S. House before winning election to the Senate in 2006, a Democratic wave year.

Unlike Hillary Clinton, whose ethics issues and internationalist reputation cost her support among working-class voters, Brown, 64, has always been a populist Democrat. Trump over-performed in many working-class areas because of his populist rhetoric and “fair trade” message, but Brown has been a favorite of blue-collar voters for decades.

Although Mandel, who turns 40 later this month, has had electoral success, there are still lingering doubts about his appeal.

First, he won two statewide elections in very good Republican years, 2010 and 2014, when his party label helped catapult him to victory. But Mandel ran behind the rest of the statewide GOP ticket in 2014. He was reelected by a 13-point margin, but the state auditor was reelected by 19 points, the secretary of state by 25 points, the attorney general by 23 points and the governor by 31 points.

Second, while many Republicans elected statewide in Ohio have shown a moderate side — including Sen. Rob Portman, Gov. John Kasich, former senator George Voinovich and former senator (and now attorney general) Mike DeWine — Mandel has embraced the conservative agenda.

A look at Mandel’s twitter feed gives you a steady diet of his views, especially his efforts to end sanctuary cities, a favorite Trump agenda item. He also spends time echoing his support for Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris accord, demonizing liberals and the media, and warning about the threat to Judeo-Christian values.

“While liberals hyperventilate & still don’t understand why Ohioans support @realDonaldTrump, families here appreciate him doing right by us,” Mandel tweeted on June 2nd, after Trump’s Paris accord decision.

On July 10, Mandel tweeted “Yes. This.” as he linked to a Brietbart piece entitled “Virgil — The Emerging Trump Doctrine: The Defense of the West and Judeo-Christian Civilization.”

A couple of months earlier, on May 2nd, he tweeted “We are living in a clash of civilizations. We must do everything we can to protect our Judeo-Christian way of life.”

Mandel’s initial tweet about the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, posted August 12th at 9:30 pm, was surprisingly general.  “So sad what happened in VA today. No place for hate and violence in America.” Four days later, at 10:23 pm on Wednesday, August 16th, he put out a more specific tweet condemning “violence, bigotry and Naziism.”

While Mandel echoes Trump’s rhetoric (and recently had former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski in for a fundraiser), he lacks other elements of Trump’s appeal. Trump ran as a successful businessman and political outsider who would disrupt the status-quo. He stressed his unique abilities.  

Mandel has been running for office since before his bar mitzvah (only a slight exaggeration), has little or no career outside of politics and, as a long-time elected official, can’t run effectively as an agent of change. But while there are question marks about Mandel, Democrats certainly can’t take this race for granted.

The biggest unknown is whether Ohio has moved from swing state to reliably Republican. Trump’s margin in the state was stunning, considering recent Buckeye State presidential outcomes.

Before 2016, the last time a presidential nominee carried the state by about eight points was in 1988, when George H.W. Bush carried Ohio by 7.8 points. Both conservative rural voters in Appalachia and working-class whites rallied behind Trump. Appalachia’s Monroe County, for example, gave Obama 44.8% of the vote in 2012, but Hillary Clinton won only 24.5%. Mahoning County (Youngstown) gave 63.5% of its vote to Obama but Clinton received only 49.9%.

The question for 2018 is whether Ohio has moved far enough into the Republican column to give Mandel a good chance of upsetting Brown. It’s a year until the post-Labor Day sprint begins, so things certainly can change. But right now, Brown’s proven campaign skills and his populist rhetoric and record, combined with Josh Mandel’s weaknesses and Trump’s falling job approval numbers, make Sherrod Brown the clear favorite in this race.