THE COLUMBUS DISPATCH/ EAMON QUEENEY Enlarge
COLUMBUS — Just hours after rising Republican star Josh Mandel suffered his first election loss, to U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, the chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party was casting him as a political has-been.
“He will long be remembered as the candidate who chose to accept $40 million in special-interest money and wallow in the mud,” said Democratic Chairman Chris Redfern. “He’s six months away from appearing on Fox News as a regular analyst. He will join the likes of Ken Blackwell and others who will slip away into the past, and we’ll recognize [him] from time to time as that guy who follows Sarah Palin.”
But that’s not the way Mr. Mandel sees it. He is just approaching the halfway point of his four-year term as Ohio treasurer, and he plans to seek a second in 2014.
“That’s the plan,” he said.
When the dust cleared on election night Nov. 6, Mr. Brown won with 50 percent of the vote to Mr. Mandel’s 45 percent; independent Scott Rupert garnered 5 percent. Roughly 278,052 votes separated the Democratic and Republican candidates, more than double the margin between President Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney at the top of the ballot.
It was a nasty battle on both sides, with the candidates and outside groups spending tens of millions to affect the outcome of a single U.S. Senate race. No love was lost between the candidates, with each either directly or indirectly calling the other a liar during a televised debate.
One ad financed by an outside group supporting Mr. Brown literally depicted Mr. Mandel as a puppet on a string for special interests while the Brown campaign directly accused him of shirking his day job to travel to the Bahamas and elsewhere to run funds for his Senate bid.
But as he enters the next phase of his political career, Mr. Mandel said he doesn’t believe he’s been irrevocably damaged politically.
“Two years from now when I’m on the ballot for re-election, I think voters will judge me based on my performance in the treasurer’s office and will recognize that we increased the bond rating, increased security of tax dollars, and cut the [treasurer’s operating] budget in a volatile economic environment, and I’m confident they will see that as a record they want to continue,” he said.
He said he believes he emerged from the campaign in a stronger position — although he’s not talking about any other office at this point beyond treasurer. Simultaneously looking back and ahead, he recently sent an email invitation for supporters to attend a “thank-you get-together” on Dec. 16 at the campus of Ohio State University, where he once was student body president.
“I ran for the Senate because I felt our country needed better leadership, and I ran to win,” Mr. Mandel said. “While the goal was to be victorious, it probably won’t hurt me moving forward that I have the highest name recognition in the entire state and the largest network of volunteers and donors Ohio has ever seen.
“Over the past few weeks I’ve been flooded with phone calls and emails from grassroots volunteers and donors throughout Ohio and America who are communicating their hope and encouragement for me to continue in public leadership,” he said.
John Green, director of the University of Akron’s Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics, said the long-term effects of such a rough-and-tumble campaign are mixed.
“Historically, it has not been a big problem to run statewide and lose,” he said. “He ran from cover. He’s still in office and will run for re-election in 2014. He has increased name recognition, which is a positive thing. People remember the name long after they’ve forgotten the reason they remember the name.”
Mr. Mandel, a former Marine reservist who served two tours in Iraq, had a perfect record as he moved swiftly up the GOP ranks. The youthful-looking 35-year-old was a Lyndhurst city councilman and won election twice in a Mansfield-based, Democratic-leaning state House district before successfully taking on his first statewide campaign in 2010 against appointed Treasurer Kevin Boyce, a Democrat.
Within a year he was running for the Senate, soon raising conjecture that treasurer had never been his goal.
“I respectfully reject that argument, and when I look back on the performance of our treasurer’s office over the last two years, I’m confident in putting up our accomplishments against any state treasurer in this country,” Mr. Mandel said. “While credit ratings in other states were downgraded, we earned an upgrade in our bond rating. While budgets in other states were increased, we actually cut our budget.”
The details of balancing security and the rate of return for state and local government money that the treasurer’s office invests rarely gets much media attention unless there’s a hint of scandal. Serving as treasurer can be a fund-raising boon, but recent history has shown that Ohio treasurers with higher political aspirations rarely want to linger in the office.
The example most often held up by Democrats that Mr. Mandel wasn’t showing up for his day job was his absence during his first year in office from monthly meetings of the Ohio Board of Deposit, a panel few Ohioans had heard of before.
The board — consisting of the treasurer, his cashier, Attorney General Mike DeWine, Auditor Dave Yost, or their surrogates — designates depositories of state money.
Once those absences took hold as a campaign issue, Mr. Mandel began attending the meetings last March and hasn’t missed one since. That includes the first post-election meeting held last week.
Justin Barasky, communications director for Mr. Brown’s campaign, said there’s no question Mr. Mandel emerged damaged from the campaign.
“Josh Mandel’s statewide name recognition was somewhere around 20 percent [at the start of the campaign], and now it’s more than three times that,” he said. “But he has one of the highest negative ratings of any treasurer in the country.
“You ask people what they know about Josh Mandel, and they’ll say he doesn’t show up for work and he hires unqualified political cronies and friends,” Mr. Barasky said. “That’s not something you want as defining you when you have ambitions beyond treasurer, which we all know he does.”
Mr. Mandel, however, noted that, despite his loss, his race with Mr. Brown was the closest U.S. Senate race in Ohio since Democrat Howard Metzenbaum defeated Republican incumbent Robert Taft, Jr., in 1976.
His campaign raised $19 million from 92,000 donors. He won 64 of Ohio’s 88 counties and received 200,000 more votes in a losing effort than Republican U.S. Sen. Rob Portman did in a winning effort in 2010.
He said his own internal polling shows him with 95 percent statewide name recognition and higher favorability numbers than unfavorable.
“He’s still a rising star,” Ohio Republican Party Chairman Bob Bennett said. “I don’t think he’s lost any momentum when you look at his age and ability. Josh Mandel is a very smart individual and a great treasurer."
“What did he get — 46 percent of the vote?” he asked. “That’s a pretty good base to start from.”
Contact Jim Provance at: email@example.com or 614-221-0496.