A week is a lifetime in politics. Just seven days ago, even some Republicans were writing off Mitt Romney’s chances of being elected president. But as the latest polls taken since his victory in Wednesday’s debate show, the race is up for grabs again. Even more significant, the altered political environment that stems from the puncturing of the Obama balloon of inevitability may be having some effect on other races as well.
The first polls after the debate showed a dramatic movement toward Romney in swing states. The national tracking polls also showed either a reduced margin for Obama, as in the case of Gallup, or an Obama lead being turned into one for Romney, as Rasmussen reported. But the key swing state of Ohio showed not only movement in the top ballot race but in the one below it. Rasmussen’s latest survey of the Ohio Senate race between incumbent Democrat Sherrod Brown and Republican Josh Mandel indicates that this crucial battle has changed from one in which Brown had a strong lead into a flat-footed tie. That not only alters the odds about that seat, but with Ohio moving from leans-Democratic to tossup on the national Senate map, it means control of the upper house may once again be back in play this year. While the youthful Mandel has been running a surprisingly strong underdog effort, it can only be supposed that a surge for him is not unconnected to the boost Romney got in Ohio in the days after the debate.
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.
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.