Young GOP Star Targets Sherrod Brown in Ohio

Young GOP Star Targets Sherrod Brown in Ohio

By Caitlin Huey-Burns - March 30, 2012

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- At a luncheon for the Ohio Bankers League here earlier this week, the man introducing Iraq War veteran and U.S. Senate hopeful Josh Mandel joked that running as a Republican in Cleveland is as challenging as a third tour of duty in the Middle East.

It's a line that Mandel, who was elected to the state House of Representatives from a Cleveland suburb in 2006, said he wished he had thought of before, and it's one voters are bound to hear often as the 34-year-old state treasurer (he won that election in 2010) campaigns to unseat incumbent Sen. Sherrod Brown this fall.

Mandel is considered a GOP rising star but an underdog in this race. Party operatives on both sides of the aisle agree that Brown, a liberal stalwart in the Senate, will be tough to beat. Nonetheless, spending from outside groups, coupled with the general-election climate in this manufacturing- and businesses-centered swing state, will make the contest one to watch as the GOP wrestles to gain control of the Senate.

Republicans believe Mandel has what it takes to give Brown a good run: He has raised an impressive $5.8 million (with $4.3 million on hand) and comes with a compelling personal story. But some acknowledge that he isn't there yet; he needs more polish on the stump and to find his groove in countering criticism that he is too young, too inexperienced and perhaps too ambitious to run for Senate so soon after becoming treasurer.

In addition, his nascent candidacy has been plagued by unwelcome headlines, which have bolstered Democrats' portrait of him as an absentee official. Earlier this month, Mandel flew to the Bahamas for a campaign fundraiser with payday lenders, missing a monthly meeting of the state Board of Deposit. At the least, the trip provided bad optics. Indeed, Mandel has skipped all but one of the board’s meetings, sending delegates on his behalf. His predecessors hardly had perfect attendance records, but his consistent absences from the meetings fuels detractors’ narrative that he isn't doing his job.

When asked in an interview with RealClearPolitics why he doesn't attend the meetings and whether he considers attendance a key part of his job, he demurred. "The main parts of my jobs are collecting, protecting and investing people's tax money, and we're doing a great job at it," he said. Mandel cites the state’s high credit and bond ratings and a liquidity portfolio that has increased by $1.4 billion since he took office -- all while trimming $1.2 million from the budget. At the one Board of Deposit meeting he attended, last week, he eliminated two banks that are accused of fraud from managing Ohio pension investments -- something he campaigned on.

"One of the main lessons I learned in the Marine Corps was the importance of empowering leaders and the importance of empowering people on my team to be leaders, and we've got a great CFO who does a great job at the Board of Deposit meeting,” he said in explaining his absences. Mandel then turned the attacks back on to his opponent. "There is only one person in this campaign who is not doing his job and that's Sherrod Brown," he said, citing the Senate's failure to pass a budget and the number of jobs lost in Ohio.

Politifact, the fact-checking project that has partnered with Cleveland Plain Dealer, among other papers, has rendered several of Mandel's attacks on Brown false, including one that he is responsible for jobs being shipped to China. When asked by the Plain Dealer to give an example of a job lost, Mandel said, "If that's the level of specificity you're looking for, you're the reporters -- you go do the grunt work. . . . Any reporter who doesn't believe Sherrod Brown is responsible for jobs going to China is simply out of touch."

The Politifact headlines have grabbed national attention, but Mandel’s campaign dismisses the Plain Dealer as a liberal media outlet. Brown’s wife, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Connie Schultz, resigned from the paper to avoid any conflicts of interest -- or the appearance of them -- while her husband campaigns.

"There is a feeling, which [Mandel’s team] would acknowledge too, that they could have been a little quicker to respond to some of the attacks that were coming out on various issues," said one Republican strategist familiar with the race. "I think they wished they put together a campaign team months earlier."

Young Blood

At the Columbus Athletic Club, Mandel previewed parts of his stump speech for his banking audience: The administration makes business owners feel "guilty until proven innocent"; Congress' failure to balance the budget "baffles" him; and people approach him at the grocery store concerned about the economy and ask what he can do about it. "Never in my life have I said no to answering my call," he said, explaining his Senate bid.

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Caitlin Huey-Burns is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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