When Josh Mandel showed up at a College Republican phone bank in Independence, Ohio, he looked like he could sit down behind a fold-up table and join about a dozen students who had been making calls all afternoon. Yet the purpose of his visit on November 6 wasn’t to enter their ranks. Instead, he meant to rally these GOP troops two days before a statewide election. So he stood before them, ramrod straight, and gave a short speech on why hard work pays off in politics. As Mandel finished, Gary Joseph Wilson, a law student at Case Western, raised his hand. “How old are you?” he asked. Mandel turned the question around: “How old do you think I am?” Wilson thought about it for a second. “Twenty-four?” he guessed.
Wilson was wrong by a decade. Mandel is 34 — and as state treasurer, he is one of Ohio’s senior Republican officeholders. He just doesn’t look it. About an hour earlier, as he canvassed a neighborhood in the Cleveland suburb of Rocky River, he introduced himself to Crista Moeller as she watched kids run around her backyard. “Do you get carded all the time?” she asked, with a smile. Mandel, experienced at this kind of banter, gave one of his stock replies: “By the time I’m 35, I hope to be shaving.”
He also hopes to be a U.S. senator. Mandel is running against first-term Democrat Sherrod Brown in what promises to be one of the most watched Senate races of 2012 — a contest that may determine which party controls the chamber. Democrats currently hold a 53–47 advantage, but they must defend more than twice as many seats as Republicans at a time when voters probably will be in the mood to pink-slip a few incumbents. The GOP expects to win in North Dakota, where a Democrat is retiring, and to make strong bids in Florida, Nebraska, and Virginia. But Republicans also will have to play defense in Massachusetts, where Scott Brown is up for reelection. Ohio voters have determined the fates of presidents — they made the difference for George W. Bush in 2004 — and their verdict on Mandel vs. Sherrod Brown in 2012 could prove decisive in the Senate.
When Mandel talks about why he’s running, he speaks of his campaign as an obligation: “I’ve never been one to say no to answering the call, whether it was to serve my community as a city councilman, serve my state as a legislator, or serve my country as a Marine.” He’s going to find himself using this line a lot. Despite his boyish appearance, Mandel has engaged in the manliest of activities: military service. He enlisted in the Marine Corps Reserve right out of college. Then came two tours in Iraq, first along the border with Syria in 2004 and three years later as a part of the surge.
Along the way, he went to law school, served as a city councilman in Lyndhurst, and won election to the state legislature. Yet the Marine experience left the deepest impression. Stateside, he performed funeral duty, meeting caskets as they came off planes and standing guard at wakes. The most memorable part of the job, he says, was notifying the next of kin: Mandel drove the colonel who performed the grim task. “It makes your stomach ache, having to go to a home in a town like Painesville and watch parents open the front door and learn that their son has been killed by a roadside bomb,” he says. “It taught me that because we’re Americans, we can debate and disagree and have opinions without getting shot, hung, or stoned to death — all because young men have paid the ultimate sacrifice to preserve these freedoms.”
Last year, following his election as Ohio’s treasurer, he was planning to serve a full four-year term. By the start of 2011, however, conservatives were scrambling for a challenger to take on Brown. Their top choice, Rep. Jim Jordan, had bowed out, citing family concerns. So Mandel began to think it over. In April, he started raising money.
His decision bore all the marks of a young man in a hurry, but Ohio conservatives seem satisfied with the choice. “As soon as I knew Josh was in, I was for him,” says Jordan. “He has the energy and the intensity it takes to win.” In 2010, Mandel impressed Republican leaders with his fundraising prowess: For the treasurer’s race, he raked in more than $4 million, almost three times as much as his Democratic opponent, who was the incumbent. “I’ve never seen anyone work so hard at it,” says an Ohio Republican. “He’s so persistent.”
#page#Last spring, after Mandel had committed to the Senate race, an adviser to Jim DeMint, the Republican senator from South Carolina, called Mandel and proposed a meeting. Mandel’s response stunned him: “Josh was like, ‘I’ll be there tomorrow.’” And he was, after driving through the night with an aide. They arrived in Washington at dawn and checked in at a hotel so they could shower. A few hours later, Mandel was meeting with DeMint. “When I looked at his résumé — the Marines, city council, and so on — I thought an older guy would walk through the door,” says DeMint. “It didn’t take me long to decide we need Josh in the Senate. We need his youth and we need his willingness to fight against the culture of spending.” DeMint’s Senate Conservatives Fund, a political-action committee that helped several conservative insurgents to victory in 2010, made Mandel one of its first endorsements for the 2012 election cycle. The Club for Growth also has gotten behind Mandel.
For Mandel, the hard work began years earlier, at Ohio State, where he was twice elected president of the undergraduate student government — a feat so unusual that it made the front page of the Cleveland Plain Dealer’s metro section in 1999: “OSU Student President Wins Election for Rare 2nd Term,” said the headline. His campaigns were unorthodox. Mandel rented a King Kong balloon, stuck a banner with his name on it, and inflated the beast to its 30-foot height on the Oval, which is OSU’s central gathering area. His most creative tactic involved a student cafeteria. “There were these ethnic buffets in the dorms and right before the election they were planning to have Chinese day,” says Mandel. “So we offered to supply the fortune cookies.” When students cracked them open and received their fortunes, they read a traditional saying on one side and “Vote Mandel” on the other. His proudest accomplishment at OSU, says Mandel, was getting the school to invite J. C. Watts, the former Republican congressman from Oklahoma, as its commencement speaker in 2000 — an event that Mandel missed because he had shipped off to Marine boot camp at Parris Island.
The Plain Dealer story that touted Mandel was prescient in identifying a future leader, but its first sentence was laughably mistaken: “Josh Mandel may act like a politician and sound like a politician, but he does not want to become one.” By 2003, as a third-year law student at Case Western, Mandel was running for an at-large seat on the city council of Lyndhurst, a Cleveland suburb. “I knocked on every door and told voters that I wanted to roll back their property taxes,” he says. Mandel won the election and persuaded the council to pass the cuts. “The other members didn’t want to do it,” he says. “But at the meeting, hundreds of people turned out. Normally, we got about eight.”
In 2006, a Democratic-leaning seat in the state legislature opened up. “I was told I couldn’t win,” says Mandel, noting that a chunk of the district overlapped with the one represented in Congress by left-wing Democrat Dennis Kucinich. Mandel became a candidate anyway, relying once more on his old-fashioned approach: “I started knocking on doors in February, in the snow and with my nose running.” By Election Day, he had rapped on 19,679 doors and had worn out three pairs of shoes — and again he won, even though plenty of other Republicans fell in a rotten year for the GOP. Today, Mandel carries around the third pair of shoes — Aldo brand, faded brown leather, holes in their black soles — and uses them as a prop during his stump speeches.
Mandel served two terms in Columbus, calling for expansion of school choice, elimination of the death tax, and drilling for oil and gas on state lands. These proposals went nowhere, due to the opposition of Democratic governor Ted Strickland. Following the elections of 2010, in which John Kasich beat Strickland and Republicans gained full control of the state legislature, each one has made advances. “Sometimes you’re in power and sometimes you’re not,” says Mandel. “It’s important to fight on critical issues even when you know you won’t win right away because it makes success possible later on.”
#page#Mandel’s next big success was his election last year as state treasurer. He collected over 2 million votes — more than any other statewide office seeker, with the exception of Rob Portman, a Republican who won an open Senate seat. Mandel hasn’t had much time to develop a record in this post, though his office has maintained Ohio’s credit ratings, published the salaries of all state employees, and cut its own operating costs. He likes to talk about how he canceled plant-watering contracts, saving taxpayers $2,000.
Although Mandel has never lost a political race, he will discover that the 59-year-old Brown presents a tough challenge. Brown won election to the Senate in 2006, forcing out Republican moderate Mike DeWine. It was his third statewide victory, following a pair of wins in the 1980s, when he was Ohio’s secretary of state. (He ran for a third term in 1990 and lost.) From 1993 until he became a senator, Brown served in Congress, representing the Cleveland area. Earlier this year, National Journal rated Brown as one of ten “most liberal” senators. He voted for Obamacare, but not before expressing disappointment that it didn’t go far enough. He also supported stimulus spending and the Environmental Protection Agency’s bid to regulate greenhouse gases. “Brown is seasoned and he works really hard,” says Greg Lashutka, a former Republican mayor of Columbus and a Mandel supporter. “This will be a close race.”
With so much possibly on the line in Ohio, both for the state and for the nation, resources will pour in as groups try to boost turnout and sway independent voters. As an aggressive protectionist — he’s the author of a book called Myths of Free Trade — Brown is a favorite of Big Labor. Mandel will try to paint his rival as an out-of-touch career politician who was first elected to public office before Mandel was born, but Brown almost certainly will counter by portraying Mandel as too young, inexperienced, and radical.
Up to now, Mandel has proceeded with caution. He has his favorite targets: He wants to repeal Obamacare, cancel the Dodd-Frank financial regulations, and put a leash on the EPA. Yet he won’t say how he would have voted on a Brown-sponsored bill to punish China for currency manipulation, even though the Senate approved it in October. Nor will he talk much about entitlements, except to offer that he was against the debt-ceiling increase and favors a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution. About the budget proposals of Republican congressman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, he’s equally vague: “I like parts of the Ryan plan but disagree with parts as well.” Mandel promises to put forth specifics next year. He also refuses to criticize Obama for a hasty withdrawal from Iraq. “It’s about time to wind things down over there,” he says.
On November 8, Ohio voters sent mixed signals about their possible intentions for 2012. Sixty-one percent rejected Issue 2, a ballot initiative pushed by Governor Kasich that would have limited the collective-bargaining rights of state workers. Yet two-thirds also voted for Issue 3, which seeks to exempt Ohio residents from federal health-care mandates — which may not in fact achieve anything, but nevertheless sends a strong political signal.
The Sunday before the voters went to the polls, when Mandel visited the College Republican call center in Independence, he spoke to volunteers who were focused on passing Issue 3. Two weeks later, he ruminated on their success: “This is the untold story of the 2011 election in Ohio,” he said. “Republicans voted overwhelmingly against the government takeover of health care. So did thousands of independents, Democrats, and union members.”
For his own race, Mandel will need to stitch together a similar coalition — and persuade a narrow majority of the Buckeye State to vote for a Brownout.