The good news for Josh Mandel, the Republican challenger to Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) is that he is running against a career politician at a time when career politicians are greatly out of favor. Brown, for that matter, consistently votes on the wrong side on energy interests and in favor of the Obama agenda. The bad news is that -- even though Mandel served two tours of duty in the Marines in Iraq and two terms in the state legislature and is the current Ohio state treasurer -- he's not as widely known as Brown and looks young enough to be Brown's son. (Brown will be 60 this year and Mandel will turn 35, hardly the youngest man to win a U.S. Senate seat.) He's rail-thin and looks more like a college athlete at first glance than a man who wants to go toe to toe with liberal fixtures in the Senate.
But looks can be deceiving. Mandel, you quickly realize once he begins to speak, is no lightweight politically speaking. (Marines aren't known for being pushovers.) His ramrod-straight posture, crisp answers and blue-collar roots suggest he's not going to get run over by a cagey veteran known for his take-no-prisoners campaigning.
Recent polling shows the race has narrowed to single digits. Mandel isn't surprised. "Sherrod Brown has been running for political office for 38 years," he begins. "He's been voted the most liberal senator in the country." He stresses Brown's votes that are out of kilter with the states's economic interests: "He sides with Washington bureaucrats on trying to block [energy] exploration. He cast the deciding vote on government-run health care." (With a 60-vote total to end the filibuster, all Democrats in the Senate at the time have that distinction.) He reminds me that Brown ran on a balanced budget but then voted against it.
He says, "I've never seen so much anger toward Washington." The resentment toward politicians who "think they can live by one set of rule while the rest of us follow another" is palpable.
But if there is one issue at the top of Mandel's list, it is jobs, and specifically energy-related job growth that the Obama administration -- and Mandel's opponent, Brown -- seem determined to crush. Mandel points to a December 2011 op-ed he wrote for the Wall Street Journal. He argued:
One might think that American anger with the Keystone decision would have made the White House avoid blocking more jobs. Yet, on Nov. 15, five days after it delayed Keystone, the administration again sided with radical special interests over blue-collar workers. . . .
Adding to the public outrage here is the position taken by Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, who this week announced his support of the federal government's job-killing decision. Even though the vilification of Ohio's abundant coal, oil and gas disproportionately hurts jobs and energy prices here, Mr. Brown has chosen to side with Washington bureaucrats and fringe extremists in the attacks on our natural resources.
Aggressive and responsible exploration of Ohio's Utica shale, combined with continued mining of more than 20 million tons of coal here every year, can revolutionize Ohio's economy. A September study for the Ohio Oil & Gas Energy Education Program found that production in the Utica shale formation has the potential to create more than 200,000 Ohio jobs by the year 2015.
Mandel is fully aware of what he's up against. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's PAC has already spent almost a million dollars against him. He notes that Brown was out campaigning with left-wing movie star Martin Sheen and draws support from "radical environmentalists, Hollywood, and public employee unions." He notes wryly that Brown's wife, until recently, worked for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, which is now "on a mission to help Sherrod Brown." He laughs it off, "There is growing skepticism of the mainstream media. Besides, their biased coverage helps me raise money."
Mandel presents quite a contrast with his opponent. I ask him how he characterizes his politics. "I'm a full-spectrum conservative with blue-collar roots and Marine Corps values." On one side of his family, his grandfather survived Auschwitz and his grandmother was hidden by "righteous Gentiles" in Italy. On the other side, his grandfather served in the Army Air Corps. None of his grandparents went to college. One of his grandfathers worked in a brass factory. He says, "They instilled a duty to serve and a duty to country," along with "an old-school work ethic."
He makes no bones about his conservatism. (Rep. Jim Jordan [R-Ohio], a frequent critic of House leadership, is one of his role models. He has "ice in his veins when it comes to making tough decisions," says Mandel.) On economics, he says, the Obama administration and the Democratic-controlled Senate "treat business as guilty until proven innocent." He says,"The EPA, NLRB and a complicated tax code are crushing business, especially small business." Like Mitt Romney and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), Mandel favors "lower tax rates and a broader base to spur small business growth."
He is, like Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), a supporter of free trade. He rattles off a list of big employers in the state. He contends that Ohio workers understand that "in order to keep their jobs, these companies need to find markets throughout the world."
As big as their difference is on domestic matters, the gap between the candidates is even greater when it comes to national security. Brown is backed by left-wing groups, including J Street. As one might expect from the latter's endorsement, Brown's record on Israel is spotty at best.
Mandel strongly opposes the upcoming sequestration cuts in defense spending, saying he agrees with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta that the cuts would be "devastating." He says, "The Obama administration shows a lack of understanding of why and how peace through strength works. I also think there's a lack of appreciation that radical Islamic leaders as well as Chinese leaders have the long view."
More generally, he voices the view that the administration "treats friends like garbage and enemies as friends." In the first category, he runs through a list of neglected or abused allies -- Israel, Colombia, Canada and Honduras. Mentioning Canada, he become more animated. When Obama nixed the XL Pipeline, he exclaims, "The message we sent to Canada is that we'd rather you partner with the Chinese."
Mandel has his work cut out for him in the Senate battle. But he won't be out-hustled. In his 2006 race (in a district that was 2 to 1 Democratic), he "knocked on 19,671 doors and wore out three pairs of shoes."
Ohio is too big to allow a candidate to knock on every door, but if Mandel can keep the focus on the Obama-Brown economic policies, he should be in good shape. As he put it, "I would love to have [the president] come into eastern Ohio and explain why the government is shutting down coal plants."