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Josh Mandel tests Ohio’s appetite for red meat rhetoric

Josh Mandel is testing the bounds of Ohioans’ appetite for a fervently right-wing, populist message in his bid to win the state’s rapidly approaching Senate GOP primary.  

Mandel, a former state treasurer waging his third Senate campaign, is looking to grab the conservative mantle with a slew of far-right stances. The gambit has earned him the ire of critics in both parties but helped make him the candidate to beat in the primary by ensuring nobody flanks him to his right. 

Mandel is narrowly clinging to his front-runner status, keeping several opponents similarly lurching to the right at bay, though many primary voters remain undecided. If successful, his playbook could show just how far candidates can go to appeal to the GOP’s energized populist wing and still win. 

“If Josh is the nominee we’ll find out,” one Ohio GOP strategist who’s neutral in the race said when asked how far right Mandel can push his rhetoric. “I think he will test those boundaries. Some of the shit he says is just f—ing ridiculous.” 

Mandel espoused far-right views during his unsuccessful 2012 and 2018 Senate runs. But he’s ramped up his rhetoric in this year’s race to replace retiring Sen. Rob Portman (R).  

Mandel’s campaign website is filled with the type of red meat phrasing the Trump wing of the GOP has adopted, including “protecting the Judeo-Christian bedrock of America” and “fighting against CRT [critical race theory], wokeism, and cancel culture.” 

He’s coupled that with using his social media presence to sound off on hot-button issues from mask mandates in schools to gun rights to immigration. 

To be sure, Mandel, whose campaign did not respond to multiple requests for comment, is not the only candidate testing that appeal.  

“Hillbilly Elegy” author J.D. Vance underwent a well-documented transformation from former President Trump skeptic to culture warrior and recently touted the endorsement of Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.). Meanwhile, former Ohio GOP Chair Jane Timken said she “wiped out the [former Republican Gov. John] Kasich establishment” and businessman Mike Gibbons tapped a former Trump campaign adviser to serve on his campaign. 

Mandel, though, has pushed his rhetoric noticeably further. He last month called Rep. Tim Ryan, the likely Democratic nominee, a “soyboy,” posted a video last summer of him burning a surgical mask and touted last month that “separation of church and state is a myth.” His Twitter account was temporarily suspended in 2021 after he created a poll asking which type of “illegals” commit more crimes, “Muslim Terrorists” or “Mexican Gangbangers.” 

Polling has shown that strategy could well pay off ahead of early voting, which starts on April 5. The primary date is May 3. 

No candidate has consistently taken the top spot in surveys and polls show as much as a third of the primary electorate remains undecided. But Mandel is the only contender who has regularly landed in the top tier since the race’s start.

Mandel holds a plurality of 28 percent support in his campaign’s latest internal poll. That’s 11 points more than his closest competitor, but 22 percent of voters still say they’re undecided.   

“I think he’s the front-runner because he’s sustained a starting point. He had an advantage in name recognition at the beginning, and he sustained that top slot even as all the other candidates tried their best to knock him off the top of the mountain,” said David Niven, a political scientist at the University of Cincinnati.  

That could be partially due to his far-right positioning. Ohio, an erstwhile swing state, jolted to the right to back Trump by 8 points twice on the backs of populist angst, a trend not confined to the Buckeye State. 

“I think he has remarkably situated himself in the moment, which is to say, he is Trump, he is an amalgam of all of the angriest and loudest voices on cable TV news, and he’s a social media creation. I mean, if we went into the lab and tried to embody what the modern Republican Party dialogue is, we’d come pretty close to Josh Mandel,” said Niven. 

Also aiding Mandel is a crowded primary. 

His strident brand of populism has helped him corner a part of the GOP grassroots — but it also makes it hard to expand beyond his base. Still, his current apportionment of the vote could be enough to carry him over a fractured field. 

“If he can hold his base, and let’s say that’s 25 percent of the vote in what is a five-way primary, that’s a pretty smart strategy,” the GOP strategist said.   

The genuineness of Mandel’s populism is a source of debate among Ohio operatives, with some noting his adoption of a Southern accent in his 2012 run and his support for Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) early in 2016. 

However, nearly every other candidate in the race went through a more recent transformation to appeal to the GOP’s right flank, and attacking Mandel over his risks bringing up questions of their own authenticity. 

“He appears to know the shtick has some resonance, but is there going to be a challenger who’s able to demonstrate just how hollow and vapid the shtick is?” asked another Republican strategist with long ties to Ohio. “It’s uncertain if they will.” 

One thing that would shake up the race is an endorsement from Trump, though it’s unclear if he’ll get involved. 

Trump’s endorsement would “dramatically alter” the field, the second strategist said, though Trump may refrain given that no presumptive nominee has emerged. A source who has spoken to Trump about the race said the former president thinks Ryan, who represents a blue-collar district, could be formidable in a general election, which has influenced his thinking.  

The Daily Beast also recently reported that Trump believes Mandel lacks charisma and has inquired about unsubstantiated details of his sex life. The source also said Trump has discussed Mandel’s personal life.

Should Trump not involve himself, observers say it would take a major shift to alter the course of the primary and knock Mandel off track. 

“It’s going to take somebody stepping up and redefining the race, and it’s very hard for [Mandel’s] opponents to do that because they almost all want to say the same thing,” Niven said.  

Republicans express some concerns that Mandel could put the seat at risk in November, warning that it may be hard to pivot to a more conciliatory tone in the general election and that his existing messaging risks turning off swing voters. However, the atmosphere is anticipated to heavily favor Republicans this year, and given Ohio’s red hue, Mandel could still be in a strong position.  

“If the national state of play remains as it is, it’s probably still a safe seat,” the second strategist said. “But that’s assuming that nothing changes over the next six to eight months.” 

Beyond 2022, Mandel’s popularity also may be a harbinger of things to come. 

Ohio has a long history of veering away from flamethrowers, choosing instead to elect mild-mannered Republicans like Portman, Kasich and current Gov. Mike DeWine. But the current crop of candidates could indicate a shift. 

“If you look at Ohio and who we elect at the statewide level, it is people who are more traditionally conservative,” the first strategist said. “If Mandel is able to get out of this primary and become the next senator, then he lays it out, you can win by running like this.” 

Tags Donald Trump GOP primary GOP Senate primary josh mandel Marco Rubio Marjorie Taylor Greene Mike DeWine Ohio Ohio Senate Race Rob Portman Tim Ryan
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