You might think an über-liberal like Democratic senator Sherrod Brown would be losing big time in moderate Ohio this year, but he isn’t.
As the race between Brown and Republican state treasurer Josh Mandel enters its final days, the polls all show Brown at least slightly ahead. The problem, says political consultant Fritz Wenzel, is that “Ohioans don’t know just how liberal Sherrod Brown really is, and they don’t really know Josh.”
With his disheveled hair and gravelly voice, Sherrod Brown looks like a populist, blue-collar Democrat. In Ohio, Brown talks about his love for Ohio-made cars, the “auto rescue,” and fair trade. But in Washington, Brown is one of the most liberal members of the Senate. He has a 100 percent rating from the pro-choice group NARAL. As an outspoken proponent of gay marriage, Brown was one of the few House members to vote against the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996.
Brown is also far-left on economic issues. He not only supported the stimulus, he said that it “didn’t do enough.” He supports a controversial EPA rule that cracks down on coal-fired power plants, something that won’t win hearts in southeastern Ohio. In 2010, Brown didn’t just support Obamacare, he pushed for a government-run public option. A year later, the people of Ohio voted two to one in favor of a ballot measure to block Obama-care’s individual mandate.
When the Occupy Wall Street protests began, Brown applauded the group’s “energy” and borrowed some of the movement’s language for his website. This support came back to bite him in May, when five men associated with the Occupy Cleveland movement were arrested for trying to blow up a bridge in northeastern Ohio.
Unsurprisingly given the above, Brown’s Senate seat was considered vulnerable when Josh Mandel, a rising political star, announced his run. The 35-year-old state treasurer has packed a lot of achievement into a short career. He lowered property taxes as a city councilman in Lyndhurst, just outside Cleveland, represented a heavily Democratic constituency in the state legislature, and served two tours in Iraq as a Marine. After he was elected treasurer in 2010, Mandel was responsible for Ohio’s $4.1 billion investment fund (where local governments park their assets), which has earned the highest possible rating from Standard & Poor’s.
Young and even younger looking, Mandel sees himself as a “force multiplier” for the Romney campaign. “There are lots of ways I can help Mitt Romney here in Ohio,” he says. “One of those areas is young people. You know, I’m 35 but I look like I’m 19. We see that youth and energy as a strength.”
Mandel’s challenge has been to convince voters to see the substance beyond his youthful appearance and rapid ascent. On October 22, he gave a series of press conferences at doctors’ offices in Westlake, Mansfield, and Columbus to discuss his 10-point health care reform plan. “I have a great deal of respect for congressman [Paul] Ryan’s plan,” he tells me. “But it’s important, as a leader, to provide your own.” Afterwards, he was comfortable hashing out the details with reporters as they asked questions about health savings accounts and insurance portability. He was respectful, studied, serious, and a bit nerdy.
Unfortunately, that’s not the Mandel featured in Brown’s negative ads, which portray him as too young and out of his depth. Many customers at the Kroger Marketplace in Lewis Center say all they know about the race is that they’re overwhelmed by the ads. “I’m undecided because of all the smears,” one 30-year-old woman tells me.
“Who’s running?” says a young mom, when I ask for her thoughts on the Senate race. When I tell her, she says, “Oh! The negative guys.”
It’s no wonder Ohioans are reeling from the ads. This has been the most expensive Senate campaign in the state’s history. The question of the week in the Delaware Gazette’s advice column is “Dear Mariann: How do I stay sane during this continuous campaign bombardment of political ads?”
Indeed, they are hard to escape. Ads for Mandel link Brown to higher taxes, higher spending, and the “War on Coal.” Brown’s strategy is to turn Mandel’s age against him. One omnipresent ad accuses Mandel of hiring young, underqualified staffers, both for his campaign and as treasurer. Travis Considine, Mandel’s communications director, says the candidate has hired “qualified professionals,” and that “the accomplishments of the office speak for themselves.”
In his second debate with Brown, Mandel defended those accomplishments: “While the U.S. credit rating was downgraded, we’ve earned the highest rating on our bonds, the highest rating on our investments, portfolio up $2 billion since the day we took office [in January 2011] . . . and we’ve voluntarily cut our budget two years in a row. Compare that to Washington.”
Even so, the attack ads have taken a toll. To make matters worse, PolitiFact Ohio has been practically a partner of the Brown campaign. The organization even “fact checked” Mandel’s Marine medals, something it has not done for other veterans. Although PolitiFact Ohio admitted it was “true” that Mandel was a “decorated veteran,” it felt compelled to add that he had not “received the valor device, which denotes performance in combat.” Mandel never said he had.
PolitiFact Ohio has given Mandel six “Pants on Fire” rankings. Brown has received only one. And PolitiFact Ohio writer Tom Feran hasn’t hidden his partisanship. In August, the website Media Trackers caught him referring to Republicans as “wingnuts” and promoting an article that called conservatism a “cancer” on his Twitter feed.
Sherrod Brown cites PolitiFact’s rulings as evidence Mandel is running a dishonest campaign. What he doesn’t mention is that PolitiFact Ohio is run by the Cleveland Plain Dealer, where Brown’s wife, Connie Schultz, was a popular columnist. Schultz left the paper last year, after she was seen filming Mandel, already her husband’s likely opponent, at a Tea Party event.
All the attacks have left Ohioans with a bad taste in their mouths. Carl Heines, 63, says: “I don’t like either guy. This mudslinging is so counterproductive.” Heines usually votes Republican, but he’s not so sure this time. “Do I like Sherrod Brown? No. But he’s seasoned, he’s been out there, and things haven’t collapsed. How do I know Josh is going to be different? How many people does he owe, after all his campaign contributions?”
Eric Sattler, 44, says he’s a Republican voting against Sherrod Brown, not for Mandel. “I shouldn’t say this, but Mandel, I don’t have a lot of confidence in him, he’s just so young. . . . I certainly think his heart’s in the right place.” Still, Sattler adds, “Putting Mickey Mouse in would be better than Sherrod Brown.”
Despite the attacks, Mandel has been closing the gap. After trailing Brown by as much as 15 points earlier this year, the latest Rasmussen poll has him behind by 4 points, and a SurveyUSA poll has him down by only 1. If the trend continues, he might just add “U.S. senator” to the top of his résumé.
Kate Havard is an editorial assistant at The Weekly Standard.