Trump sparks imitator in Ohio Senate race

Trump sparks imitator in Ohio Senate race
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Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel (R) is looking to replicate Donald TrumpDonald John Trump Former US ambassador: 'Denmark is not a big fan of Donald Trump and his politics' Senate Democrats push for arms control language in defense policy bill Detroit county sheriff endorses Booker for president MORE's campaign strategy, hoping to reap the benefits of the president-elect's success in his second Senate bid.

Mandel is looking to unseat Sen. Sherrod BrownSherrod Campbell BrownBank watchdogs approve rule to loosen ban on risky Wall Street trades Dayton mayor assigned extra security following verbal spat with Trump The Hill's Campaign Report: Battle for Senate begins to take shape MORE (D-Ohio) in 2018, taking advantage of a midterm electorate that leans more Republican.

Mandel announced his bid on Wednesday in a style straight out of the Trump playbook, including with familiar slogans like “rigged system” and “drain the swamp.” He leaned heavily into Trump campaign themes of improving the middle class and decreasing the influence of lobbyists and special interests.

“Most people think Washington is broken, but really it’s just a rigged system,” Mandel said in the video. “The politicians and their cronies get rich while the middle class struggles.” 

Mandel’s coziness to Trump could pay political dividends. The president-elect won the perennial swing state by 8 percent even after polls leading up to the election showed him ahead by only a few points.

His announcement also played up two pillars of Trump’s campaign: immigration policy and national security. The Ohio Republican highlighted in his announcement his opposition to sanctuary cities and called for stronger border security.

In a Dec. 1 speech at Trump’s “thank you tour” event in Cincinnati, just days after a Somali refugee’s attack at Ohio State left 13 people injured, Mandel blasted politicians who refuse to say “radical Islam.” Similarly, Trump mocked Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonThe Memo: Polls flash warning signs for Trump Polls suggest Sanders may be underestimated 10 declassified Russia collusion revelations that could rock Washington this fall MORE on the campaign trail for declining to use the phrase.

Mandel, a Marine Corps veteran who served two tours in Iraq, is the first declared Senate challenger of 2018. Mandel won his state treasurer position in 2010.

Mandel’s entrance in the race quickly met with praise from high-profile Republicans. Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioGOP group calls on Republican senators to stand up to McConnell on election security in new ads What the gun safety debate says about Washington Trump moves forward with F-16 sale to Taiwan opposed by China MORE (R-Fla.) and conservative group FreedomWorks quickly issued endorsements. The following day, Sen. Tom CottonThomas (Tom) Bryant CottonCotton warns China: Crackdown on Hong Kong would be 'grave miscalculation' Congress must address gender gap in nominations to military service academies GOP senators press Google on reports it developed a smart speaker with Huawei MORE (R-Ark.) sent out a fundraising email.

GOP pollster WPA Research conducted an early poll showing Mandel leading Brown by 1 point, putting his potential lead within the 4 percent margin of error.

Republican strategists in Ohio give Mandel the upper hand in the primary even as more Republican candidates are expected to launch bids. They say his statewide name recognition plus his prolific fundraising makes him a daunting primary opponent and a credible challenger to the popular Brown. 

“Beating Josh in a Republican primary is an incredibly tall hill to climb,” said a GOP strategist who’s worked on Ohio races. “The guy’s a political animal and he’s tireless and he’s beloved among conservatives who vote in a Republican primary.”

By tying himself so closely to Trump, though, the Ohio Republican opens himself to backlash if Trump disappoints his voters. The incumbent party that holds the White House historically faces blowback in midterm elections held in the first two years of a new president’s administration. 

Strategists note that Ohio’s midterm electorate typically trends more conservative than those in presidential years. They say if Mandel advances through the primary, his biggest challenge in the general will be getting more unlikely voters who backed Trump to the polls without the Trump name on the ticket.

“A number of them voted Republican for the first time in their lives,” the GOP strategist said. “So how do you get those folks to make sure they vote in a U.S. Senate primary when Trump’s not on the ballot?”

“Trump was different and said things differently, but the voters in Ohio believed he was genuine, and voters responded to that, so I think Josh’s challenge is going to be to genuinely appeal to them.” 

Before Mandel can face Brown in a rematch, he must win a GOP primary that has already drawn other prospective challengers.

Rep. Pat Tiberi (R-Ohio) has been looking at this race for the past six months, according to a GOP source. Tiberi has close ties to Ohio Gov. John Kasich, after working for him in Congress and now holding his old House seat. Tiberi has a well-padded war chest with $5.2 million cash on hand. 

If Tiberi runs, a potential Trump-Kasich proxy war could emerge in the primary. Mandel backed Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) before endorsing Trump in August. Tiberi, like Kasich, was highly critical of Trump and never endorsed him. 

Rep. Jim Renacci (R-Ohio) isn’t ruling out a statewide run, but hasn’t specified whether he's interested in Senate or governor.

State Sen.-elect Matt Huffman (R) is another potential contender. Strategists say he doesn’t have a statewide platform like Mandel, but are told he has a “significant backing.” Huffman confirmed to The Hill that he’s been urged to consider running, but won’t make that decision until June 2017.

“The folks I have talked to have suggested that an alternative is needed to the names most frequently suggested as our party's choice to challenge Sherrod Brown in 2018,” Huffman said.

“If it appears that there is sufficient support from Ohioans for my candidacy for U.S. Senate at that time, I'll run.” 

Whoever faces Brown, Republicans acknowledge that the senator is both a formidable opponent and a mainstay in Ohio politics. Serving in the upper chamber since 2007, Brown was a House member for 14 years and was Ohio’s secretary of state before that.

Brown has also twice been floated as a potential vice presidential candidate, and has nearly $3 million in his campaign account.

In an interview with WYTV in Youngstown, Ohio, Brown appeared confident that he’d win reelection, though he noted that he’ll likely be outspent again.

In his video, Mandel accused Brown of having a Washington machine to back him up. But Mandel already has nearly $1.4 million in his Senate campaign account.

Brown already appears conscious of his looming reelection race, as well as Trump's sway in the Buckeye State. He’s signaled a willingness to work with Trump, but has also expressed opposition to some of his Cabinet picks.

He’s also been involved in a funding bill fight with another vulnerable incumbent, Sen. Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinGOP senator: Gun control debate 'hasn't changed much at all' back home What the gun safety debate says about Washington Sunday shows - Recession fears dominate MORE (D-W.Va.), threatening to shut down the government over healthcare benefits for retired miners.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) is already using that as ammunition against Brown, claiming that he’s “masquerading as a friend of the coal miners” and noting his backing from the environmental group Sierra Club.

“Trump won Ohio in a very real way and Ohio is a state where that message resonates, and I don’t think that’s lost on Sherrod Brown,” said another GOP strategist with ties to Ohio. 

It’s too early to tell whether emulating Trump will be a winning strategy, but some Ohio strategists believe the race will operate independent of Trump’s appeal to the state’s voters. 

“At the end of the day, I don’t think the Ohio Senate race will live or die with the popularity of Donald Trump," a Democrat strategist with ties to Ohio said. "I think it will live and die with the choice between the two candidates."