Both parties brace for tight race in Ohio

Ohio’s increasingly tight Senate race is pitting the man who hasn’t been around long enough against the man who’s been around too long.

New polling shows that state Treasurer Josh Mandel (R), who Democrats say is woefully underprepared for the Senate, is nipping at the heels of Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), who Republicans say has little to show for his almost 20 years in Congress.

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For months Brown had a 15-point lead over Mandel in the polls, and few thought Mandel could put Brown on defense in a state President Obama carried in 2008. Yet slowly but surely, and despite a series of pitfalls that have earned him repeated rebukes from the local press, Mandel has narrowed the gap on Brown, aided in part by more than $6 million in attack ads from outside conservative groups.

“They’ve never overlapped, so it’s clear they coordinated,” Brown told The Hill.

A Quinnipiac University poll released Thursday showed Brown leading Mandel by 6 points, while another survey by Democratic firm Public Policy Polling put Brown’s margin over his GOP opponent at 8 points. Mandel’s name recognition has increased significantly in both polls, suggesting he’s made a good impression as voters get to know him.

A Brown aide said it wasn’t surprising the race had tightened and that the campaign expected it would get even closer, but that Ohioans in the end would reject Mandel’s record as treasurer and his economic agenda.

As if to accentuate the implications of what the new polling suggested, Brown and a Democratic super-PAC supporting him both launched attack ads against Mandel on Thursday. The two similar-themed ads encapsulated Democrats’ chief allegations against the first-term treasurer: that after stocking his treasurer’s office with under-qualified campaign aides, he went missing on the job and launched a Senate campaign before being prepared to talk about the issues.

“He’s sworn in. But just 87 days later, Mandel’s running for the Senate, fundraising from Hawaii to Washington, missing official meetings,” says the narrator in the ad that Majority PAC said it was spending six figures to air in four Ohio markets.

Editorials in Ohio newspapers have repeatedly called out Mandel, a Marine Corps veteran, for making misleading or inaccurate statements about Brown’s record, and for refusing to take a clear stand on key policy issues he would have to address as a senator.

“I’ve never seen someone running for office say, ‘I’m not going to cast imaginary votes.’ He has a duty,” said Brown. “We all have a duty when we run for office to speak clearly about the issues — the voters deserve no less.”

Brown has been on the receiving end of more super-PAC and outside-group spending than any other Senate candidate so far this cycle — about $6.3 million, according to one source tracking Ohio’s ad market.

But Mandel’s team pointed to his recent gains in the polls and said it was no coincidence that Brown’s campaign was the first to go negative on the airwaves.

“The fact is, we’ve released two positive ads, and he’s released two negative ads now,” said Mandel spokesman Travis Considine. “That’s astonishing given that he’s got two decades in Congress and can’t seem to find anything positive to share with voters.”

Mandel’s campaign has also used its efforts to portray Mandel as the victim of an incumbent who’s been in Congress since 1993 — mostly in the House — to its advantage in fundraising, where Mandel has been raising serious money, although his cash on hand still trails Brown by about $1 million.

“Josh can’t be pushed around and will do everything he can to fight for his 11.5 million bosses in Ohio by shaking up Washington,” Mandel’s campaign manager, Ray Yonkura, wrote Thursday in a fundraising pitch. “Josh’s road to victory will rely on his proven record of accomplishments, whereas Brown’s strategy is to remain in the gutter.”

Republicans are also hoping that Ohioans’ sour view of Obama, combined with a voting record that puts Brown among the most liberal members of the Senate, will lead Ohio voters to vote against the Democrat in November.

“I think he’s a good president,” Brown said of Obama. “I would not do everything the way he’s done it. I wish he would fight more for the China currency bill.”

Democrats, meanwhile, are relentlessly hitting Mandel on the mechanics of how he has run his treasurer’s office, and for dodging policy questions on issues such as student loans and the Violence Against Women Act.

“Moving forward, people will start to learn a lot more about where Josh stands on the issues that matter most to him,” said Considine.