Was Trump too moderate?

Josh Mandel at an event for his Ohio Senate campaign. (AP)

 

After Glenn Youngkin’s high profile victory in Virginia’s gubernatorial election two weeks ago, many commentators speculated that he might be trailblazing a path for Republicans to reclaim the suburbs. Youngkin never denounced Trump, but he did distance himself from the former president, even avoiding the unsolicited tele-rally Trump hosted for him. The strategy seemed to pay off, with exit polls suggesting that Youngkin won 53% of the suburban vote in Virginia––about the same margin that Biden carried the suburbs in Virginia in 2020. Youngkin was able to present himself as a Romney-esque Republican while still appealing to Trump’s base

Northwest of Virginia in Ohio, another politician is testing out the opposite strategy: what if you ran a campaign even more extreme than Trump’s? Josh Mandel will find out.

Who is Josh Mandel?

Josh Mandel is a 44-year old career politician, first winning office at 26 for a seat on the Lyndhurst, Ohio city council. Three years later, he won a seat as an Ohio state representative, then four years after that, he won statewide office as the Ohio state treasurer. Mandel might have been young, but he was ambitious and vaulting upward in the halls of government. A year after taking office as state treasurer, he announced his bid to challenge Democrat Sherrod Brown for his Senate seat.

That 2012 Senate bid failed, and his second attempt in 2018 fell short when he pulled out citing personal reasons. His inexorable rise appeared to have run into a wall. 

Earlier this year, however, Republican Senator Rob Portman announced that he wouldn’t be seeking reelection, and Mandel saw a third opportunity to make it into the Senate. This time he wasn’t going to play it safe. 

What is Mandel’s strategy?

Mandel has never shied away from controversial statements, but this Senate bid is decidedly more radical than any he’s mounted before. Apparently sensing that he couldn’t just rely on his statewide celebrity to capture the Republican nomination, Mandel has remade himself into a man who will say anything to win.

In September, Mandel advanced a theory that the pandemic was created by the Chinese government “to take down our economy” while the DNC collaborated in the anti-American plot by “Facilitat[ing] the invasion of our country by drug cartels and child sex traffickers” and “Elect[ing] pro-Sharia politicians to infiltrate our government.” In October he seemed to welcome either the apocalypse or civil war, tweeting “Meat in the freezer. Baby in the cradle. Gun at the ready. #bitcoin in cold storage. They hate this.” Though we’re not sure what use Bitcoin would be during an apocalypse, his implication was clear.

All the while, he’s sought to win a democratic election by positioning himself as the most election-skeptical candidate on the ballot. Sitting on a stage with five other Republican hopefuls last month, Mandel said “I’m the only candidate in this race who’s willing to… say that I believe the election was stolen from Donald J. Trump.” Doubling down, he tweeted that “the election WAS stolen from Donald J. Trump.”

Perhaps even more ambitiously, he’s tried to portray himself as Christianity’s greatest defender… despite being Jewish. He has attacked the separation of church and state, comparing it to Chinese totalitarianism and issuing a call to “Shut down government schools and put schools in churches and synagogues.” 

What would a Mandel victory mean?

Like Youngkin’s victory in Virginia, the Ohio Senate race is a bellwether for the future of the Republican party. Youngkin’s win might have shown us how well a more civil Republican can perform in a general election, but a Mandel victory in the May primary would suggest the lasting appeal of Trump-style radicalism. The Wall Street Journal described Youngkin’s victory as giving the “GOP a playbook ahead of midterms,” yet Mandel might be writing the alternative playbook. Come the primary in May and the general election in November, we’ll find out if voters in a state Trump carried by more than 8 points desire even more extremism.

Still, it’s difficult to ignore the ominous similarities between the candidates. While their styles could hardly be further apart, Youngkin still won’t refute the claims that the 2020 election was stolen. Whether it’s leading candidates like Mandel to adopt ever-more extreme positions or turning a seemingly-moderate candidate into a Trojan horse for a conspiracy theory, Trump’s lasting grip on the Republican party is undeniable. We’re witnessing two electoral strategies play out, but they’re both paying respect to the MAGA base. 

 

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Aaro Berhane

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