The Buckeye State serves as America’s microcosm, a sort of melting pot between Northern manufacturing, Midwestern farmland, Appalachian terrain, and Upper Southern culture—all squeezed in between bustling urban centers. It’s often remarked that candidates in Ohio really run five campaigns, each with a different message tailored to the four corners and central area of the state. Everything—party splits, rural/urban divides, racial percentages, education levels—combines nicely into a sample quite representative of the nation at large.
It’s not surprising then that, except for favorite sons, Ohio has supported the winner in every presidential election since 1888, save for Kennedy in 1960. In recent years, it’s sported NRA-approved Democratic Governors and pro-tax Republican senators; extremists rush away like the Ohio River, never escaping a primary. But in the new, more polarized era of politics, even Ohio will be electing a true party loyalist to the Senate. Buckeye voters as a whole haven’t shifted their opinions, but Washington rhetoric has convinced primary voters to consistently reach for the more and more partisan. Ohio serves as a case study in the fundamentally altered political landscape in America. Whichever candidate is elected, the winner of this race will take an important place in the Senate and personally help redefine their party’s tone for the next six years.
Incumbent Democrat Sherrod Brown—ranked twice by National Review as the “most liberal member of the Senate”—was elected in the Democratic sweep of 2006. Brown, however, cannot be described simply as a Democrat; he often finds himself left of his caucus. An initial and vocal opponent of the Iraq War, he’s spent his career in the House championing single-payer healthcare and opposing free trade agreements (he’s penned multiple books explaining his opposition). Furthermore, he’s not one to settle for compromises. He voted against the extension of the Bush tax cuts in 2010 and spending cuts to social programs, and he’s been a vocal spokesperson for the progressive left. Nonetheless, he remains highly popular—his fiery populist appeal, support of the auto-bailout, and modest appearance have burnished his image as champion of the people.
Brown faces off against Tea Party favorite Josh Mandel. Mandel, a marine who served two tours in Iraq, became the darling of the far right early in the primary. Notable Republicans from across the country—from Chris Christie to John McCain—have lent their support, and the little known former councilmen and state treasurer has become something of a conservative celebrity. While his record as treasurer shows impressive growth and credit ratings compared to others states, some controversy has arisen over his attendance (or lack thereof) at meetings and cronyism that he promised to fight against. Nonetheless, Mandel embodies the perfect candidate: young family, good-looking, fundraising machine, and a clean life story.
Needless to say, neither of these candidates is a stereotypical Ohio politician—or for that matter, American politician. Whether either would have been able to survive a Senate primary just a decade ago is debatable, if you assume that Brown would have moved to Massachusetts and Mandel to Texas. This is not to say that either is a bad man or unqualified for the job; rather, both have personal qualities and legislative skills that let them compete for moderates that otherwise would be disillusioned with the race. It’s simply that their policies have the ability to polarize moderate voices within the Senate. Don’t think that this is merely another tally towards either party getting fifty-one votes.
Take evidence of the Republican minority versus the Democratic supermajority during a large part of 2009. In theory, Democrats should have been able to pass legislation with reckless abandon—they held a filibuster proof Senate and control of the House and presidency. But they ended up passing a relatively modest number of bills, thanks in large part to the fiery rhetoric of the Right that scared the Blue Dog Democrats of losing their next election. Even what they passed, most notably Obamacare, was reduced to far more moderate compromises.
Yet, during the conservative takeover of the House, the rise of the Occupy Movement reenergized the Left. Obama began to take more liberal stands, and debate shifted from the deficit to unemployment. Some more moderate Republicans—think Scott Brown—began to work well with the Democrats, also concerned with their re-election campaigns. Not many bills got passed, as the two chambers of Congress still made different parties in the majority, but the tone of debate resonated much farther on the Left than beforehand.
Thus, the value of Brown and Mandel doesn’t lie merely in a consistent voting record; each will energize their caucus while forcing more compromise from less strong-willed opponents. Through the Senate seat, the winner will gain an audience for their voice and hold a prominent spot within media coverage; the loser will be largely ignored. By virtue of this stark difference, the winner’s rhetoric may eventually make more of a difference than his policy-making.
This importance has not fallen on deaf ears, making this campaign (depending on your source) the most expensive of all Senate races this year. Brown relies on small donations and Union support. The AFL-CIO has stood strongly behind Brown, but their donations are several orders of magnitude behind the money the Right raises. Thus, the Democrats have employed more of a grassroots campaign—the conservative Fraternal Order of Police backed Brown and has worked vigorously to re-elect him. Andrew Zucker from Brown’s campaign told HPR that “the FOP hasn’t endorsed a Democrat since ‘88—Sherrod Brown is on the side of Ohioans, and they know that. He stands up for firefights, policemen, physicians. Josh Mandel stood up for Gov. Kasich.” FOP support provides numerous campaign aides as well as community support, and has been known to swing ballot issues on an annual basis.
Mandel has wooed various conservative Super PACs, most notably, Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS and the Koch brothers. These have generated some controversy. Brown quickly points out that high-powered conservatives benefit from tax cuts and deregulation, making there donations near investments, while wealthy liberals like George Soros donate against their own self-interest.
Travis Considine from Josh Mandel’s campaign, however, gave HPR a different spin: “Ohio’s an expensive state—media ads aren’t cheap. The more Ohio learns about Sen. Brown, the less they like him, and the more they learn about Josh, the more they like him.” Biased as this may be, he’s right, as the ads have proved very effective at boosting Mandel’s support.
Of course, this race has gotten quite nasty. Mandel attacked Brown’s voting record as “un-American” (while sitting adjacent Brown) and his ads/statements are frequently questioned by PolitiFact, dubiously giving Mandel the “Pants-on-Fire Crown” for his “casual relationship with the truth.” Conservative blogs have released records accusing him of abusing his first wife and neglecting his children, and Mandel has not been shy to mentioning Brown’s “hypocrisy” on women’s issues (Brown denies any such cruelty, and his wife has admitted to “angry words” during the divorce).
The attacks have not gone as much the other way, though your perspective depends on whether that’s due to Brown’s above-the-fray campaign or Mandel’s lack of major transgression. Mandel has gotten some grief for illegal donations from the Suarez Corporation—which he quickly returned—but nothing from the Brown campaign has pointed to them. The most notable attacks have focused on Mandel’s time as treasurer, including continued absenteeism to meetings he was meant to run and promotion of political allies to important positions.
The White House
How do the presidential and senate candidates interplay with one another? Considine puts it plainly: “Presidential and Senate elections tie together everything together. … We’re banking on the presidential election bringing a lot of people to the polls.” Similar sentiments were offered by Democratic staffers, and coupled with the divided nature of the election both sides are likely to get their wish; “safe” Democrats and Republicans will both likely make their ways to the polls, spend the hours going door-to-door, and donate more to campaigns.
Chris Maloney from Mitt Romney’s Ohio told HPR that campaigns have “become seamlessly integrated”, sharing resources, enthusiasm, and messaging. He may be leaving out the most important aspect of all—polls. Just as Obama’s support jumped several points in Missouri after Todd Akin talked of “legitimate rape”, Mandel and Brown have their fates intertwined with the presidential candidates.
Like former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland and current Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, both candidates have been the subject of speculation for their parties’ respective tickets. Mandel has already received early comparisons to GOP young-gun Marco Rubio, while Brown has been getting some action from British bookies for the 2016 Democratic Nomination. Even if those lofty expectations fall short, the winner of this election likely has a bright future within their respective party—the loser, a humbling return to state politics.
Ohio voters are faced with a stark contrast. Energized on both sides after a successful Democratic effort to recall Republican legislation, the state will likely remain polarized through the election. Brown represents the far left of the Senate, and Mandel would be firmly on the right. Assuming no supermajority arises anytime soon, the Senate will have to operate through moderate compromises; each politician in the ideological wing of their party adds one more vote requiring even greater concessions. Intraparty disagreements may play a larger role than ever before, with this election—like any in Ohio—serving as a framework through which to view the entire country.