It seems like only Ohioans and a handful of out-of-town interests are familiar with the race between incumbent Sen. Sherrod Brown and Republican state treasurer Josh Mandel. Political observers say it shouldn’t be close — a 37-year political veteran in Brown against Mandel, a 35-year-old with a murky attendance record across three elected offices and a well-documented history of lying during this campaign.
But millions of dollars from anonymous out-of-state millionaires and billionaires is backing Mandel, who is trying to overcome his inexperience, his opposition to the auto bailout and the fact checkers who he has generally ignored.
It’s been called the most vitriolic and disrespectful campaign Ohio has seen in recent memory. And there’s a major reason things have gotten ugly: This Senate seat is vitally important for the control of Congress’ upper chamber and the legislative success of whichever presidential candidate wins.
Brown says it’s the nastiest and most negative campaign he’s been involved with in 37 years in politics.
While Brown spoke to CityBeat for this story, the Mandel campaign ignored multiple attempts by CityBeat throughout the month of October to interview the candidate.
“I think it’s a threat to the democratic process,” Brown says. “I think it’s the most cynical — of all the cynical things I’ve seen in politics, the most cynical are this year.”
The second debate looked more like a rhetorical boxing match than an exchange of ideas, with Brown and Mandel jabbing each other with accusations of lies and subterfuge.
“I think (former Sen. Mike) DeWine and I had a respect for each other and that’s sort of lacking in this race that way, I think just because of the nasty Karl Rove outside money.”
And it’s understandable that so many interested parties would dump money into the race: Despite the fact that it is only one Senate seat out of 100, it is among a handful that can determine the future of that body.
“The first vote is the most important one — to organize the Senate,” says Mack Mariani, Xavier University associate professor of political science and sociology. “Who’s going to lead the Senate? Is it going to be Mitch McConnell or somebody else? If that Ohio senator is the 51st vote, that could make a huge difference. It’s going to shape politics going forward for the next few years.”
That’s going to either tie the hands or unfetter whoever becomes the next president. It isn’t very likely Democrats will make any headway in the House, where Republicans have held a solid majority since 2010, but the number of Democrats in the Senate can make a world of difference for a President Obama or a President Romney.
And for that reason, the GOP considers Brown an easy mark.
“There’s some sense from the Republican side at least that Brown ideologically is further to the left, more so than most incumbents would be comfortable with,” Mariani says. “Republicans look at that and say, ‘OK, we can use some of those votes against him.’”
The label of “liberal” is something Brown hasn’t tried to run from, though it’s something his opponents have used against him in advertising — ads accuse him of being the most liberal member of Congress.
“I don’t think the public cares about that,” Brown says. “I don’t think the public sees liberal, conservative, left, right. I think the public sees whose side you’re on, and whether it’s with the auto rescue, China, kids going to college, Medicare, the environment, public health — the public overwhelmingly sees I’m fighting for them.”
Both candidates are running down to the wire to grab votes. With about a week to go before Election Day, Brown recently wrapped up a bus tour of many of Ohio’s larger cities and industrial towns. Meanwhile, Mandel jumped on the coattails of Romney and running mate Paul Ryan in weekend events in Ohio.
There is a stark difference between the two candidates — a fact the two of them won’t let anyone forget. Their second public debate was more remniscent of a cockfight than civil discourse.
Mandel in media interviews and debates has taken the polar opposite position from Brown on everything from taxpayer money rescuing private businesses (Mandel has said he would not support a bailout under any circumstances while Brown voted to use government money to prop up Wall Street and the auto industry) to entitlements (Mandel wants to overhaul Social Security and raise the retirement age for younger people while Brown wants to raise the cap but keep the retirement age the same).
The military-style boots Mandel is often seen wearing at campaign events harkens back to his two tours in Iraq as a U.S.
Marine between 2004 and 2007. He bragged about wearing out three pairs of them knocking on doors to get elected to Lyndhurst City Council (a Cleveland Suburb) in 2003 — his first office.
Mandel had his sights set on bigger things. In 2008 he got elected to the Ohio House of Representatives, where he championed the state’s divestment from companies that did business with Iran. He also voted against legislation that makes cockfighting a felony and against a bill that would make it a crime to discriminate against people who apply for housing or employment based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
He took another step up in his election as Ohio Treasurer in 2010, maintaining Ohio’s highest possible rating from Standard & Poor’s for the state’s $4 billion investment fund.
The 59-year-old Brown was also once a political upstart, becoming the youngest person elected (at the time) to the Ohio House in 1974 at the age of 21. He served until 1982 before becoming Ohio Secretary of State, a position he held for two terms before being defeated by Republican Bob Taft.
Brown then ran for the U.S. House in 1992, where he stayed until being elected Senator in 2006.
During his tenure in Congress, Brown opposed the Iraq war, opposed the Defense of Marriage Act and supported the Affordable Care Act. However, he’s still done some unpopular things like supporting the controversial Protect-IP Act to crack down on internet piracy and voting in favor of the National Defense Authorization Act of 2012 that allowed for the indefinite detention of U.S. citizens.
The facts (or lack thereof)
Mandel’s opponents have painted him as an inexperienced candidate who is using the race as a political and career stepladder and would be in the pocket of big business and special interests.
Ohio Democratic Party Chairman Chris Redfern says the only reason Mandel is still in the race — the most recent aggregate polling had him trailing Brown by fewer than 5 percentage points — is because of about $30 million in outside money pumped into the campaign by anonymous donors through Super PACs.
“(Famous tea party supporters and frequent donors to GOP candidates) the Koch brothers are leading a corporation and they’re trying to garner as much support in the United States Senate to help their corporation and line their pockets,” Redfern says.
Mandel’s campaign maintains near complete silence despite multiple attempts by CityBeat to interview the candidate. CityBeat also unsuccessfully tried to get an interview with Ohio Republican Party Chairman Bob Bennett.
However, a look at public records shows Mandel to be an absentee treasurer.
Mandel has missed 14 out of 24 meetings through September of the state board in charge of depositing Ohio’s money. During one of those meetings he was at a $2,000 a ticket breakfast fundraiser in Washington D.C., according to Salon.com.
Citing lessons he learned in the Marines about the importance of empowering staff, Mandel sent representatives to the most of the meetings he skipped.
Mandel’s predecessor — Democrat Kevin Boyce — missed 13 of 24 meetings during his tenure, while previous treasurer Richard Cordray missed only one.
That’s not the only board on which Mandel sits or chairs. There are seven other boards or commissions for which he has responsibility.
The treasurer’s office acknowledged CityBeat’s request for Mandel’s public schedule on Oct. 4, but has not provided those records, despite numerous follow-ups over the course of the month.
We were able to get our hands on the schedule with the help of American Bridge, a progressive research group that received Mandel’s public schedule from his inauguration through mid-July of 2011 through a records request.
The schedule, along with meeting minutes and published news reports, doesn’t do anything to dispel the image of the absentee treasurer. Mandel missed 11 meetings of the Public Facilities Commission, four meetings of the Mine Subsidence Underwriting Board (while his campaign claims Brown and President Barack Obama are waging a “War on Coal”), three meetings of the Ohio Student Tuition Recovery Authority and nine meetings of the Petroleum Underground Storage Take Release Compensation Board.
Mandel’s early tenure as treasurer was rocked with allegations of cronyism after an investigation by The Dayton Daily News found that he had hired six young, relatively inexperienced workers from his 2010 campaign for high-level positions in his administration.
Politicians hiring people they know is nothing new, but during that campaign Mandel actually criticized his opponent for appointing politically connected people to key slots. He pledged to hire a staff of qualified financial professionals “rather than political cronies and friends.”
Staffers hired on in the treasurer’s office include Michael Lord, Mandel’s former campaign manager, and Seth Metcalf, a college friend of Mandel’s who managed his student government presidential campaign at the Ohio State University in 1999.
And then there are some of Mandel’s campaign statements.
PolitiFact Ohio — the fact-checking arm of the Plain Dealer newspaper in Cleveland — has rated six of Mandel’s statements as “Pants on Fire,” the rating given to an outright lie. Mandel holds the most Pants on Fire ratings of any politician in Ohio.
Mandel also has had three statements ranked “False” and four ranked “Mostly False.”
Sherrod Brown, on the other hand, has had one statement ranked Pants on Fire, four rated False and two called Mostly False.
Despite having had so many claims rated as untrue — claims Mandel often sticks behind — the race is still relatively close according to aggregate polling, something Redfern suggests is evidence of the potential payoff for the GOP if it can get Mandel elected.
“This is about supporting a lesser-known and lesser-qualified candidate for any office, in this case the United States Senate, because this candidate, Josh Mandel, will be a mere puppet for the special interests, including the Koch brothers,” Redfern says.
One consistent theme throughout this year’s Senate contest is accuracy, both in campaign statements and each candidate’s representation of the other. Is Brown a career politician looking to maintain the status quo in Washington while Mandel fights to change Washington and help working families, or is it the other way around?
Consistently repeated misinformation has brought up an interesting question for political analysts: whether or not facts and fact checkers even matter in political races.
Brendan Nyhan, assistant professor in the Department of Government at Dartmouth College and the author of many studies and articles on fact checking, says they do.
“In a world that is similar to our own where fact checking didn’t exist, would things be better or worse?” he asks. “I think they would be worse.”
“There are people who seem to be unaffected by the fact checkers, but there’s another way to think about this: It’s not just about the statements being rated, but it could be deterring statements we don’t see.”
Gene Beaupre, director of government relations at Xavier University, says in the fight to be on newspaper headlines, campaigns will sometimes risk being fact checked in order to say something bombastic that will land them on page one.
“I think they’re at the stage where, I’ll take a foul if it gets me down the field,” he says.
Mandel’s camp has accused Brown of missing more than 350 official votes in Congress. However, those 351 votes occurred over his 19 years in Congress. According to GovTrack, Brown missed 3 percent of votes, slightly higher than the median missed vote rate of 2.5 percent for all members of Congress.
The things Brown has supported, though, have become key talking points of the race — things like the auto rescue, stimulus act and Affordable Care Act. Brown has said those things protect workers and jobs, while Mandel has claimed they are hurting the country’s economic recovery.
Meanwhile, political scientists and the candidate who spoke with CityBeat for this story say this race was different from any they have seen.
“I’ve never been part of a campaign so well-funded and so well-organized statewide, and I have never, frankly, been in a campaign as openly contentious as the debate is here, particularly between the two candidates,” says Beaupre, who has worked on a number of campaigns in the Cincinnati area. “That’s pretty amazing to me.”
Outside groups have spent about $30 million on ads against Brown. A vast majority of that came from Super PACs and groups that are not required to disclose the identities of their donors.
Through the end of September, outside anonymous donors spent nearly $6 million in ads attacking Mandel.
Those groups get double the bang for their buck in the battleground of Ohio, because supporting the GOP downballot candidate also helps Romney; same thing for Democrats and Brown.
Beaupre says the influx of outside money and the anonymity it grants allows the Super PACs to take off the gloves of civility, and that has bled over into the candidates and campaigns.
“It’s an invitation to knock down the wall, if you will, and go after your opponent in almost every way you think might be effective, whether it’s appropriate or not,” he says. ©
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