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Can Mandel be the GOP’s Majority Maker?

Pundits who are quick to write off the Republicans’ chances of gaining the four Senate seats they need to take back the upper chamber after the Todd Akin fiasco in Missouri need to remember that the GOP has more opportunities for gains than they thought earlier in the year. The assumption that Claire McCaskill’s Missouri seat will easily fall into the GOP’s hands was blown up last week by Akin’s idiocy about pregnancy and rape. But it turns out that the Ohio seat held by liberal stalwart Sherrod Brown, which many Republicans weren’t counting among their potential pickups, is now very much in play. Republican candidate Josh Mandel, whose youth and relative lack of experience has been widely mocked by the Democrats, could replace Akin as the GOP’s majority maker.

That’s the only reasonable interpretation of the Columbus Dispatch survey of the Buckeye state that shows the Brown-Mandel race as being as much of a dead heat there as the one between President Obama and Mitt Romney. The Senate race is a 44-44 tie, while the Ohio presidential matchup is deadlocked at 45-45. That’s significant because when the same numbers in the Senate contest were posted by Rasmussen earlier in August, they were dismissed as inaccurate or inconsistent with other results. But with the Dispatch poll and a University of Cincinnati poll released last week that showed Brown leading Mandel 48-47, it’s now clear a race that was long judged to be an easy hold for the Democrats is now a tossup. After a summer during which the Brown camp has pounded Mandel with negative ads, Democrats have to be scratching their heads about these numbers.

Mandel was thought by some political observers to be too green and untested to defeat an entrenched incumbent like Brown. His list of political accomplishments is thin. He has less than two years as Ohio’s treasurer and two terms in the Ohio House of Representatives. Despite Brown’s designation as the “most liberal member of Congress” by the National Journal, the incumbent, who has also has seven terms in the U.S. House of Representatives under his belt, was assumed to have an easy opponent in Mandel. But despite that modest resume, it’s now apparent that voters seem to like the Republican. The 34-year-old may not look old enough to shave but there is something about the Marine veteran’s smart, youthful persona and upbeat style that attracts voters.

Back in June, Politico alleged that the only thing that was keeping Mandel’s hopes afloat was support from super PACs like American Crossroads. But in the intervening months, Mandel was carpet-bombed by labor PACS and other liberal big spenders who lambasted his candidacy and record. Rather than letting this Democrat counter-punch floor the GOP hopeful, Mandel has actually gained ground over the summer.

That has got to worry the Democrats, since it shows that the more the voters see of Mandel, the more they like him. And with Brown running slightly behind President Obama, he’s going to need a surge at the top of the ticket in order to be carried over the finish line. That means a Senate seat that Democrats believed they were likely to keep is very much up for grabs this fall. Akin’s collapse was a blow to the GOP’s plans to win the Senate. But since a Mandel win should no longer be considered a long shot, they can easily make up for a loss in Missouri with an unexpected triumph in Ohio.