As he prepares to run for the Senate in 2018, Republican State Treasurer Josh Mandel hopes to rely on the same populist themes used this year by President-elect Donald Trump — a strategy Democrats say won’t work against Sen. Sherrod Brown, who has strong support among working-class Ohioans.
Mandel, who lost to Brown in the 2012 Senate race, Wednesday became the first Republican to enter what could be one of the nation’s higher-profile election contests in 2018. Columbus area Rep. Pat Tiberi, R-Genoa Twp., is considering a run as well, although he would have to yield his relatively safe House seat to run statewide.
A primary between Mandel and Tiberi would further divide an Ohio Republican Party that has been somewhat split since Trump easily won the state last month despite the fact Gov. John Kasich refused to endorse him.
Although Mandel endorsed Florida Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida in the Republican presidential primary, he is trying to emulate Trump’s style, pledging in a video released Wednesday he would work to “drain the swamp.” By contrast, Tiberi holds Kasich’s old congressional seat and has long been a Kasich ally.
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“Casting himself as Trump, Jr., today may very well come back to haunt him,” said Dennis Eckart, a former Democratic congressman from Cleveland and Brown confidante. “Besides, it would really be nice to have a U.S. senator who thought of things independently and wasn’t a carbon copy of a New York billionaire.”
“He hardly knows Trump,” Eckart said. “It’s like somebody who gets married through internet dating. They never have even met the person. It’s very difficult to see Josh Mandel channeling Donald Trump when he endorsed Marco Rubio for president.”
Rubio quickly endorsed Mandel on Wednesday. “Josh Mandel is always the first to fight when it comes to defending conservative principles, like lowering taxes and creating a more transparent government for the people of Ohio,” Rubio said in a statement.
Mark Caleb Smith, a professor of political science at Cedarville University, said it’s unclear yet if Trump’s performance in Ohio will refashion the state in some ways for Republicans or whether his appeal is unique.”
“Mandel would have a hard time arguing he is an anti-establishment figure since he has been a familiar face in Ohio politics for several years,” Smith said.
In a conference call with Ohio reporters, Brown, D-Ohio, said he was “focused on my job. I’ll just leave it at that.”
Brown beat Mandel in the 2012 race by more than 300,000 votes, 50.7 percent to 44.7 percent.
In the video announcing his candidacy, which was released on the 75th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Mandel said he comes from a “family of fighters.”
“While one of my grandfathers was wearing the uniform of the U.S. Army during World War II, my other grandfather was fighting to survive Auschwitz,” Mandel said. “At the same time, my grandmother was fighting to survive the Nazis in Italy, being saved by a network of courageous Christians.”
But echoing Trump, Mandel said “it’s time to take the fight to Washington,” adding that most people think Washington is broken, but really it’s just a rigged system.”
“I will never succumb to political correctness,” Mandel said, clearly adopting a Trump line.
Although Barry Bennett, a former Trump adviser, said “it’s entirely possible that Trump could be very popular in 2018,” historically the party of incumbent presidents does not do well with voters in the first off-year election.
“If Trump is struggling and if Democrats are able to resist him effectively, Sherrod Brown could find himself in a positive, pro-Democrat environment in 2018,” Smith said.
During his conference call, Brown suggested Trump could “lose these voters who voted for him the first time” if he pursues an approach that favors weaker financial regulations and tax cuts that tend to benefit wealthier people.
Ohio Democratic Party Spokesman Jake Strassberger said Mandel is “more interested in furthering his own political career than doing his job.”
“From hiring his cronies and giving them raises to exchanging access to the official treasurer’s letterhead for $100,000 in campaign contributions to using the Treasurer’s office to talk about issues that have nothing to do with the job taxpayers pay him to do, Josh Mandel remains someone we can’t trust,” he said.
Staff Writer Lynn Hulsey, Jana Heigl of the Washington Bureau and Alan Johnson of the Columbus Dispatch contributed to this story.