For the next week, it’s all eyes on Ohio, and not just because it’s a key to the presidency — it could also decide control of the Senate. Republican Josh Mandel has attracted national support, but has trailed his competitor, incumbent Sherrod Brown, for the whole race. And yet, his campaign strategists and grassroots volunteers are optimistic about sending someone to Washington who has a bit more in common with Rob Portman than Al Franken. From here, it’s all about momentum and ground work, both of which just might be on Mandel’s side.
The fact that it’s a presidential-election year doesn’t hurt. “My gut is that the Senate race is going to be very similar to the presidential race,” says Ralph Reed, founder of the Faith and Freedom Coalition. But Mandel just can’t count on a passionate GOP turnout, and needs a way to win his race even if Ohio goes for Obama.
Travis Considine, a spokesman for the campaign, says its top goal is to have Mandel meet as many voters as possible. “We just have to do our best to get Josh out there,” he tells National Review Online. “The more voter contact, the more voters like him. So literally just get him out there.”
Southeast Ohio’s coal country, central Ohio, and Mandel’s hometown of Cleveland — in Democratic-leaning Cuyahoga County — are key parts of the campaign’s strategy. Further, Considine says the polls have improved in northeast Ohio, and that Mandel seems to be gaining ground among independents. The campaign’s latest internal poll, which had a D+5 partisan advantage, gave him a 2 percent lead overall. Among voters who were ranked a “10” in likelihood to vote, the poll had 48 percent going for Mandel and 43 percent for Brown. It also put him up 46-32 among independents.
Keeping Sherrod Brown from polling over 50 percent is paramount, according to Bob Bennett, chairman of the Ohio Republican Party. He explains that when incumbents poll with less than half of the vote, Ohio independents tend to split 80-20 for the challenger, erring on the side of change. That’s why it was so important to keep George W. Bush above 50 percent in 2004, he says. And thus far, history is on Mandel’s side — if he wins 80 percent of independents, the seat should be his.
Mandel also has to maximize his support from the conservative base, according to the Buckeye Institute’s Greg Lawson. Sherrod Brown is such a polarizing figure and staunch liberal that that shouldn’t be too hard. “They’re lock, stock, and barrel behind him,” Lawson says. “They’re very stoked. They like his message, they like him, and, candidly, they really hate Sherrod Brown.”
So Mandel has to do well in traditional conservative strongholds, such as southwest Ohio’s Hamilton County, Warren County, and the rest of the region. “If he performs to expectations, he’ll be in pretty good shape,” Lawson tells National Review Online. Beyond that, he needs to capitalize on his support in Cleveland’s Cuyahoga County and erode that key Democratic stronghold.
Boosting turnout will also be essential, especially given the work unions have done for Brown. The AFL-CIO recently announced that it registered 65,000 new voters in the state, hardly good news for Mandel, a candidate who supports right-to-work laws and has drawn rabid opposition from labor interests.
But counterbalancing those forces, conservative organizers in Ohio might be able to help Mandel eke out a win. Considine says the campaign’s Victory Team will have knocked on more than 500,000 doors and made 800,000 phone calls by November 6. And the network of tea-party volunteer groups from 2010 remains formidable.
Ed Bell, co-founder of the Eastern Hills Community Tea Party, near Cincinnati, says his group has focused on Mandel’s race from the start.
“He’s not the kind of candidate where you have to motivate your activists,” Bell tellsNational Review Online. “Everybody was unified from Day One and really anxious to help him.”
And that energetic support for Mandel extends beyond Ohio, too. The Jackson Hole Tea Party in Wyoming has been making phone calls for Mandel, Bell says, and a group from Houston came up to volunteer. A number of volunteers have also driven up to six hours from Tennessee to go door-to-door for Mandel.
“It doesn’t hurt that Sherrod Brown’s an unapologetic progressive — that really motivates people too,” Bell says. “The divide between them ideologically is sort of like the Grand Canyon; it’s not a hard sell at all.”
“He’s an easy guy to run against,” Bell concludes.
In fact, the biggest problem for conservatives may have been organizing the sheer number of volunteers available.
Dom Sciria, the president of the Cuyahoga Valley Republicans, tells NRO that members of his group are ecstatic about the possibility of a Senator Mandel. He helped start the group in 2009, assuming it would be a small Republican club with a few dozen members. But 100 people showed up to the first meeting, and the next month, their numbers nearly doubled. They now number 650 members, Sciria says, making them the largest grassroots group in northwest Ohio. Their work in Cuyahoga County will deserve a lot of credit if Mandel pulls off a victory. Mandel is from the county, but since it encompasses Cleveland, it’s one of the state’s most urban and densely populated areas. Republicans won’t win the district, but they need to do well to reduce Obama’s and Brown’s margins of victory.
Sciria says that the county is, “in a sense, Ground Zero” — increasing independent and conservative turnout there could be a game-changer, and realistic, too.
“The fact that it is even this close says a lot about where voters are” headed, he says. Independents seem to be swinging to the right, and volunteers sense that momentum is behind Mandel. “”It’s going to be close,” he says, “but we think he can win.”
— Betsy Woodruff is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.