Senator Rob Portman (R-OH) announced on January 25th, 2021, that he will retire from the Senate due to “partisan gridlock.” The announcement led to what has become a crowded Republican primary race for the seat; a survey of likely GOP primary voters conducted by the Trafalgar Group in February 2022 shows that Josh Mandel, former state treasurer, led the primary race. Portman has endorsed candidate Jane Timken, who, according to the poll, sat in fourth place with 9.8% in February, compared to Mandel’s 21%, and the undecided 25%. A March Fox News poll showed banker Mike Gibbons jumping narrowly ahead of Mandel, polling at 22% compared to Mandel’s 20%, with other candidates roughly ten points back.
The race has garnered national attention, not simply for its implications regarding the current 50-50 split in the Senate, but also because of the rhetoric being used by the Republican candidates, specifically Josh Mandel. During an event in late January of 2022, covered by Michael Kruse of Politico, Mandel called Covid-19 “a bioweapon manufactured by the Chinese Communist Party,” and referred to Black Lives Matter activists as “thugs.” Mandel has also said that he “do[es] not believe in separation of Church and State…there is no such thing” in a clip that he tweeted with the caption: “Separation of church and state is a myth.” In a March 28th debate with other members of the Republican primary field, Mandel stated: “For all the RINOs out there and all the media elites out there, the 2020 election was stolen from Donald J. Trump.” Mandel’s relentless attempts to distinguish himself as the Ohio race’s most Trumpian candidate is a far cry from his past self, as he, according to Michael Kruse, “used to preach bipartisanship and diversity and civility.”
However, many who are familiar with Mandel are not especially surprised by his sudden shift from moderate to MAGA. Ohio GOP Strategist Ryan Stubenrauch was quoted as saying that Mandel has “always been a chameleon.” Dennis Eckhart, an Ohio Democratic Strategist, said that Mandel is “an opportunity-seeking opportunist.” In Ohio, Mandel may be seeking to capitalize on the strong support the state showed for Donald Trump in the 2016 and 2020 elections. After going to Obama 51.5-46.9 in 2008 and 50.6-47.6 in 2012, the state went to Trump in both 2016 and 2020, with approximately 8 points separating Trump from the Democratic candidates in each election. Mandel is no stranger to courting the politically powerful within the Republican party in his search for the Ohio Senate Seat, as he “court[ed] Tea Party activists” in order to win the 2012 Republican Senate Primary before losing the general election as a “business-friendly Republican.” While campaigning for Mitt Romney at the time, Mandel thought that the people of Ohio didn’t want to see “hyperpartisanship.” Mandel has since stated that Mitt Romney is a “loser.” Before finally making his way to Trump, Mandel supported Marco Rubio for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016, and, according to the New York Times, “privately expressed doubts about Mr. Trump’s credibility and business acumen.”
Contradicting his previous claims, Mandel has since tweeted claiming that he is “President Trump’s #1 ally in Ohio.” The video clip accompanying the tweet is a Newsmax interview containing Mandel’s statement of “[pride] to be the first statewide official…to support President Trump,” also noting the fact that he “stood by President Trump” after “the tapes came out in the Fall of 2016.” The tapes to which Mandel refers are the “Access Hollywood” tapes in which Mr. Trump made extremely offensive and vulgar comments, bragging about assaulting women. According to the New York Times, after the release of the tapes, Mandel “condemned the remarks but affirmed his support for Trump.” In the Newsmax interview, Mandel described fellow state Republicans’ reactions to the tapes as being “squishy,” accusing them of “jumping ship and hiding for cover.”
Mandel has centered his campaign around Trumpism and its ideals, stating that he is “taking the Trump, America first agenda…all across the State of Ohio.” For Mandel, a large part of this agenda is based on seeking a “doubling down” on what he sees as the “Judeo-Christian bedrock” of the United States. He calls for the “instill[ment of] faith in the classroom, in the workplace, and everywhere in society.” Yet, another part of his agenda has been based on his idea that the time in which we live, he has said, “is not the time for civility.”
Perhaps this is Mandel’s attempt to justify his bigoted tweets that were taken down by Twitter as they violated the site’s rules against hateful conduct or his calling members of Congress “terrorist spokesmen,” to name some of his many recent actions. After all, Mandel reportedly told Mr. Trump last March that if he was going to be campaigning, it would be “balls to the wall,” and that “we’re going to win the primary and then the general.” The promise to Mr. Trump came at an event where Trump summoned four of the Republican candidates in the Senate race to participate in, which ended up looking like what one person called a “Hunger Games” in order to vie for his support.
The story of Josh Mandel, described by a Democratic operative as “what has become of the Republican Party,” also exhibits a national trend of Republican candidates running as far to the right as they can in their primaries in order to garner the support of Mr. Trump. The effect of this being, of course, that Mr. Trump would seem to be able to control the outcome of primary races where this phenomenon is taking place. Philip Elliot of Time writes that Trump has “proven an effective candidate slayer,” seeking vengeance on those that have refused to perpetuate the idea that the 2020 election was stolen, as well as on the Republicans that voted to impeach him after January 6th. Representative Peter Meijer (R-MI), who voted to impeach the President after January 6th, has said that “[t]he view among some was that this would be essentially a self-correcting issue,” referring to Trump’s power over candidates’ “political future[s].”
Instead, as Josh Mandel and the remainder of the Republican primary field in the Ohio Senate race demonstrate, the political future of many Republican candidates may lie in the hands of Mr. Trump, whose wrath or support seems to determine a candidate’s success or failure. Dennis Eckhart, quoted by Michael Kruse of Politico, said that due to “[t]he Trump phenomenon…it’s a natural time for someone like Josh Mandel” in the Republican party because Mandel has demonstrated not only his ability but his eagerness to change himself with the prevailing wind of the Republican party in his search for a Senate seat.