Brown-Mandel Ohio Senate race will be brutal referendum on Trumpism
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CLEVELAND — The upcoming 2018 Ohio U.S. Senate grudge match between incumbent Democrat Sherrod BrownSherrod Campbell BrownHistory argues for Democratic Senate gains On The Money: Trump 'ready' for tariffs on all 0B in Chinese goods | Trump digs in on Fed criticism | Lawmakers drop plans to challenge Trump ZTE deal Dems pressure GOP to take legal action supporting pre-existing conditions MORE and Republican State Treasurer Josh Mandel is shaping up as a barnburner on several levels.

On one hand, it is likely to become the most expensive race in the nation. On the other, it promises to fast forward the extinction of Ohio’s Democratic Party.


As the poster boy of the state and national party’s progressive wing, Brown is clearly in the political cross hairs with major conservative campaign weapons systems targeting him dead center. Already there are rumblings that Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump warns Iran's Rouhani: Threaten us 'and you will suffer' Pompeo: Iran's leaders resemble the mafia NYT's Haberman: Trump 'often tells the truth' MORE’s 2016 campaign manager Kellyanne Conway may be leading an outside group to help defeat Brown.

Since losing to Brown in 2012 by 330,000 votes while winning 66 of Ohio’s 88 counties, Mandel has been single-minded in pursuing a rematch.

Back then the baby-faced 34-year-old Cleveland-area Republican was regarded as overly ambitious, much like Florida Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioRubio: Crisis in Nicaragua could lead to civil war Release of Carter Page surveillance documents reignites debate Graham: Warrant for Carter Page surveillance was 'a bunch of garbage' MORE, after having been elected State treasurer only two years prior. Now the still-baby-faced Mandel is hoping that six years of seasoning, foggy voter memories, and the new Trumpian political reality will help him vanquish Brown, seen by many on the left as their Progressive White Knight.

Much will depend, however, on Donald Trump’s performance during his first two years and the effect it will have in the mid-term election.

In Ohio, he carried 80 counties and beat Clinton by more than 476,000 votes. In 2012, Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaSpicer maintains Trump inauguration had biggest audience in history Montana governor raises profile ahead of potential 2020 bid Trump was right to ditch UN’s plan for handling migrants MORE defeated Mitt Romney by 166,000 votes, largely because he carried Cuyahoga County, anchored by Cleveland, by 250,000 votes.

OhioToday, Ohio has only five Democrats in Congress, four in the U.S. House and Brown in the Senate. The generally 50/50 swing state has changed a lot — largely due to gerrymandering — since Democrats John Glenn and Howard Metzenbaum roamed the Senate.

Sen. Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanGOP to White House: End summit mystery US to provide additional 0M in defensive aid to Ukraine Senate GOP attempts to wave Trump off second Putin summit MORE’s thrashing of Ted Strickland shows the uphill battle Brown may face against Mandel in 2018.

The former unpopular one-term governor won only four counties statewide — Cuyahoga, Franklin, Lucas and Athens, home of Ohio University. In fact, Strickland failed to win his former Appalachian congressional district and Portman won overwhelmingly by 21 points.

A major debate within Ohio is whether the state has turned red. This year’s election map clearly shows it has with only the metropolitan areas around Cleveland, Columbus and Toledo showing support for Democrats. What’s more, the Ohio statehouse is dominated by a Republican legislature, the largest majorities either party has had since the state went to a 33-seat Senate and 99-seat House.

In the 2017-18 session, there will be 66 Republicans, and it takes 50 votes to pass a bill. In the state Senate there will be 24 Republicans and it takes only 17 to pass a bill.

Oh, and then there’s Gov. John Kasich, who is term limited and looking for his next act.

For Mandel to take advantage of the Trumpian head winds and Ohio’s reddening hue, he may need to change his tune.

On paper, the twice-elected State treasurer’s personal narrative — a U.S. Marine/Iraq War non-com intelligence specialist, state representative, two-time Ohio State student body president, married to a scion of a prominent Cleveland Jewish family— is a Republican dream candidate.

His Tea Party / pro-life / pro-gun / pro-America / pro-Israel / pro-military / anti-Obamacare / climate-change skeptic / pro-Keystone / anti-NAFTA / pro-coal positions seem tailor-made for the Trump era.

But Mandel’s missteps during the 2012 campaign cost him with voters. His “casual relationship with the truth,” as fact-checkers called it, hurt him with Ohio’s voters.

In some ways, Mandel foreshadowed Trump’s problem with “truthiness.”

When he was called out on his untruths, Mandel consistently doubled down, just like Trump. That’s one main reason why not one single major Ohio newspaper endorsed him. Even the more than $60 million spent by outside groups in 2012, including Crossroads GPS, attacking Brown and outspending the incumbent by five-to-one, wasn’t enough to overcome Mandel’s self-inflicted tone-deaf wounds.

Adding insult to injury was the New York branch of his wife’s high-profile family taking out a full-page ad in Cleveland’s Jewish weekly denouncing him.

Bucking Kasich, Mandel was the lone elected Republican state official that publically endorsed Trump. By hitching his wagon to the Trump train, Mandel is pinning his political future to a peculiar politician whose low approval ratings may not improve over the next two years, especially if the Ohio economy doesn’t improve.

This time the Brown-Mandel rematch means much more to many more groups. For progressives, it may be seen as a last stand against Trumpian America. It’s expected that Brown will play a large role in opposing Trump’s nominees for key cabinet posts, particularly Education secretary. He has long enjoyed strong support of teachers’ unions and other public employee unions.

Mary Anne Sharkey, former Cleveland Plain Dealer editorial director and communications director for Gov. Bob Taft, noted to me that Brown:

“is much like Bernie SandersBernard (Bernie) SandersCarter Page warrant reflects attack on our civil liberties Sanders advises Ocasio-Cortez: Keep doing what you've been doing Bernie Sanders mocks Trump: ‘He could change his mind tomorrow’ MORE in his political outlook but admittedly does not have the same ability to attract large and adoring young crowds.”

But the well-respected political observer believes Brown “appears to be in good shape for winning another term of office.” One big reason, Sharkey says, is that Brown and Trump “intersect on the issue of fair trade.”

Concludes Sharkey:

“Sherrod Brown is loved in blue-collar Ohio where Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonCarter Page warrant reflects attack on our civil liberties Former Obama aide to Comey: 'No one is asking for your advice' Comey to Dems: 'Don't lose your minds and rush to the socialist left' MORE failed spectacularly and lost her chance of being the first woman president.

"One thing you will not hear Brown say is that these blue-collar voters are racists or misogynists because they are his voters. Brown should hold the blue-collar vote together in his reelection proving to be a reliable vote on their issues.”

A few years ago, to prove his point, Brown and his wife, Pulitzer Prize-winner Connie Schultz, moved into a blue-collar Cleveland neighborhood. Mandel, on the other hand, lives in the affluent east-side suburb of Beachwood.

There couldn’t be a sharper contrast between the two candidates, which will make this an uber race to watch.

David Eden is a writer in Cleveland.

The views expressed by Contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.