For those who assume the post-Citizens United world of campaign spending means elections can be bought, the Ohio Senate race is a classic example of a bad candidate being kept afloat by cash. That’s the conceit of a Politico feature today about Josh Mandel, the Ohio Republican who is confounding his critics by staying within striking range of Democratic incumbent Sherrod Brown. According to the piece, Mandel ought to have been run out of the race due to a string of bad headlines. However, he has not only saved his candidacy but actually has a shot at winning due, as Politico tells it, to the infusion of out-of-state contributions and ad buys by super PACs that have duped the state’s voters into considering voting for him. But while there is no question that the efforts of the pro-GOP Crossroads America PAC and others like it have helped Mandel, Politico is exaggerating both the impact of money and Mandel’s supposed weakness.
As Politico notes, even Mandel has acknowledged that the support from national conservatives groups is a shot in the arm to his candidacy. Money can buy visibility and get a candidate’s message out to the public, especially when a politician has been pigeonholed as not ready for prime time–a problem the youthful Mandel has encountered. But campaign contributions and television ads can’t buy credibility. All the money in the world couldn’t have won a Christine O’Donnell a Senate seat or put Newt Gingrich in the White House. Though Mandel has had his share of negative stories during his short tenure as Ohio State Treasurer (he was first elected in 2010), the baby-faced Iraq War veteran has demonstrated the sort of intelligence and character that would give any politician a chance, especially against a liberal like Brown in a moderate/conservative state.
It could have been argued that Mandel was too young and inexperienced to jump so quickly into the Senate race, especially as he had only come from out of nowhere to win state office for the first time less than two years ago. Politico assumes the missteps he has made in office would have sunk a candidate prior to Citizens United. But it should be understood that none of the string of damaging stories rise to the level of a scandal or the sort of egregious error that would normally end a career or a candidacy. However, the fact that he has risen above them, albeit with the help of a well-funded campaign, also shows he has enough on the ball and has made enough of a connection with the voters to allow them to either forgive or overlook them.
Just as important is that the “carpet bombing” of Brown by the super PACs wouldn’t be having an effect on the race if Mandel was really regarded by the public as a fool or if Brown was not the one many in the state consider out of touch with their opinions. Moreover, because Democratic PACs have been spending heavily on ads trashing Mandel, it’s not as if there isn’t a competing narrative available to the public. If Mandel is holding his own in the race — the last poll taken at the end of May by Rasmussen shows Brown leading by only five points — it is because he has convinced a critical mass of voters that he is credible.
Brown must still be considered the clear favorite in Ohio and can count on favorable coverage from mainstream media around the state. Though Mandel has shown enough promise to merit the investment from Republicans around the country, he must overcome being labeled as an upstart who has gotten ahead of himself. But Mandel is a bright young political talent who has already exceeded the expectations of his party and the media more than once. If this race stays close heading into the fall it will be because the voters like what they see in him, not because of the super PAC support.