Dayton, Ohio — The first Senate candidate Senator Marco Rubio (R., Fla.) endorsed this year was Ohio’s state treasurer, Josh Mandel. On the day of his endorsement, Rubio explained to Fox News why he favored Mandel over his Democratic colleague, Senator Sherrod Brown. “We need . . . to tackle some of these issues like saving Medicare and Social Security,” he said. “We will not do that with the current bunch that is in charge right now. We will need to make some changes.”
A Senator Mandel would be quite the change. The 34-year-old, fresh-faced Republican is 25 years younger than the 59-year-old incumbent, who — as Mandel likes to remind voters — first ran for Ohio state representative in 1974, when Richard Nixon was president. The conservative Mandel also makes for a strong ideological contrast to Brown, whom National Journal ranked the fifth-most-liberal member of the Senate.
Mandel, profiled in these pages by John J. Miller (“Buckeye for Promotion,” December 19, 2011), is a rising star in the GOP. Raised in Beachwood, a suburb of Cleveland, he played quarterback for his high-school football team. He majored in communications at Ohio State University, where he served two terms as student-government president and enlisted in the Marine Corps Reserve. He went on to receive a law degree from Case Western Reserve University.
During his eight years in the Reserve, Mandel served two tours in Iraq as an intelligence specialist. The experience gave him “a heightened sense of personal responsibility,” he tells National Review. For his appreciation of freedom, he credits his grandparents, one of whom was imprisoned in Auschwitz while another served in the Army Air Corps during World War II. Mandel also credits his law professor Arthur Austin, who “under the umbrella of teaching contracts, really advocated for the free-enterprise system” — and found a receptive pupil.
Mandel’s legislative career bears the marks of these influences. In 2003, he won a seat on the city council of Lyndhurst, Ohio, where he engineered the first property-tax cut in local history. In 2006, he won a seat in Ohio’s state legislature and caused a stir when he proposed a bill to divest the state’s pension funds from companies that did business with Iran. After winning reelection in 2008, he successfully ran for state treasurer in 2010. In that office, he cut over $1.2 million from the state budget. He is pro-life and pro–traditional marriage.
In the fickle suburbs of Cleveland and Cincinnati, however, ideological consistency counts for little. Instead, Mandel is emphasizing the economy — and his opponent’s fumbling attempts to revive it. From 2001 to 2011, the Buckeye State lost 345,600 jobs in manufacturing, pushing its unemployment rate to 10.6 percent in August 2009. In February, it stood at 7.6 percent, while Brown’s focus in Washington remained on liberal proposals, such as Obamacare and EPA greenhouse-gas regulations, that would do little if anything to create jobs.
Mandel thinks jobs are the key issue, and that’s evident in his campaign schedule. On this Monday morning, he takes a tour of Staub Manufacturing Solutions, a metal-fabrication shop in Dayton. In a gray warehouse populated by blue-polo-clad workers, owner Steve Staub shows Mandel his equipment — big machines with names such as the “Trumatic L 3060.” Under the dangling lights and stencil-letter signs, Mandel listens, with sympathetic nods of the head, as Staub recounts the obstacles his company has overcome. Manufacturing comes with large start-up costs; consider that the Trumatic L 3060 costs $850,000.
“It’s not an easy business anybody can jump into,” Staub says. In 2007, he had 34 employees, but in 2009, the recession shaved his work force to ten. Today, he employs 20 people, but he doesn’t consider the federal government’s policies responsible for his recovery. The feds need to “help us,” Staub argues, “not continually add regulations that are going to strangle us.” For instance, were he to have four 55-gallon drums of Windex on his grounds, he would be out of compliance with environmental regulations, according to which the cleaner is a toxic chemical.
In his first bid for the state legislature, Mandel earned a reputation for his sneaker-punishing work ethic. He knocked on 19,000 doors, raised $400,000, and won in a district where Democrats outnumber Republicans by two to one. Even at this early-morning campaign stop, Mandel operates at full speed: shaking everybody’s hand, chatting briefly with a reporter from the Dayton Daily News and a camera crew from the local station WHIO-TV, and receiving an endorsement from the tea-party group FreedomWorks, all before jumping in his Jeep for the next event.
In front of a group of Staub’s associates who have assembled in the warehouse, Mandel gives his stump speech. With his hair closely cropped and his red tie taut, he looks fresh out of Sunday school. “I’m 34 years old for those of you wondering,” he says, to laughs. His voice brims with energy. He promises to eliminate the regulations that are hurting small businesses and preventing the extraction of natural gas from the Utica and Marcellus shale formations. “We trust families and small businesses more than faceless bureaucrats in Washington, D.C.,” he concludes, provoking applause.
Mandel will face a tough fight and a ruthless opponent in Brown. The Democrat’s campaign is trying to portray Mandel as a young man in too much of a hurry. Brown’s aides have dug up video of Mandel saying he would like to serve four years as treasurer and labeled it a broken promise. They’ve complained that Mandel has attended almost none of the Board of Deposit meetings, which the treasurer is supposed to chair. (The other two members of the board, the attorney general and the state auditor, usually don’t attend either; like Mandel, they send representatives.) They also have made hay of an unremarkable finding by the Dayton Daily News that Mandel hired inexperienced campaign staffers for key posts. (The problem for Mandel is he criticized his predecessor for a similar practice.)
On a car ride to West Chester, Mandel responds to these charges with a fusillade of points: “We’re running one of the most effective and efficient treasurer’s offices in America. While Standard & Poor’s downgraded the credit rating for the United States . . . we earned the highest rating we could earn — a AAA rating — for the $4 billion investment fund I manage. . . . We’ll take that and stack it up against Washington and Sherrod Brown any day of the week.”
Mandel can be brash, but he is also cautious. When asked what he thinks of Congressman Paul Ryan’s proposed budgets, Mandel responds, “I don’t have a position on any of the Ryan plans.” He promises to unveil his own proposals before Election Day. In interviews, he dodges questions about Brown’s proposal to levy tariffs on tires made in China, usually noting simply, “I believe in free markets.”
He’s completely frank, however, in his condemnations of the president’s foreign policy. “I can’t stand President Obama’s blame-America-first approach,” he says. “I wish he was as publicly angry about the U.S. servicemen who were killed in the wake of the Koran burnings [as] he was about the Afghanis that were killed in that unfortunate incident by the staff sergeant.”
He opposes the president’s timeline for withdrawal from Afghanistan: “We can’t stay there forever, but it needs to be on the timetables set by our military commanders, and they shouldn’t be public.” And he’s crystal clear on his views regarding that country’s eastern neighbor: “We should cut foreign aid to Pakistan. I don’t think American tax dollars should be sent to a country whose military academy is five minutes from where Osama bin Laden was living for many years.”
Mandel’s campaign believes he will win because of his biography and his grunt work. He’s raised $5.8 million so far, with $4.3 million in cash on hand — not too far behind Brown, who has raised $6.5 million, with $5.2 million in cash on hand. The campaign also contends that Mandel has crossover appeal. He cut his political teeth in Democrat-heavy Cuyahoga County, where he was the only statewide Republican executive candidate to win more than 40 percent of the vote in 2010. Hold your losses there under 100,000 votes, Republican Buckeyes believe, and success is assured.
There’s reason to believe them. In a recent poll by Rasmussen Reports, Mandel tied Brown with 43 percent of the vote. Other polls have shown Brown leading, but much of that gap is attributable to Mandel’s still-low name recognition across the state.
“In order to change Washington, we need to change the people we send there,” Mandel says in a summation of his campaign. And though he sounds similar to other Republicans, he sounds very different from the incumbent: He’s young, plucky, and conservative. It was enough to win him a vote of confidence from Florida’s junior senator. Come November, we’ll see whether it’s enough to win him the Buckeye State’s.