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Vance vs. Mandel Gets Ugly

With the Ohio Senate GOP primary remaining close in its final days, the ads have gotten desperate and nasty. (But at least they’re honest?)
by Jim Swift
April 28, 2022
Vance vs. Mandel Gets Ugly
Ohio Republican Senate candidate Josh Mandel (Photo by Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call)

In Ohio’s Republican Senate primary, “The Final Countdown” just came on, and all the contenders are doing their best Gob Bluth impressions in the hope that something magical happens to their prospects.

It’s going about as poorly as you’d expect—but, as in a bad reality-TV show, Ohio Republicans still have to pick a winner next Tuesday. Although there are seven candidates, only three matter now: Josh Mandel, J.D. Vance, and Mike Gibbons. And the fighting among them has gone nuclear over the past two weeks—since Donald Trump bestowed his blessing upon Vance.

In a Fox poll of registered Ohio voters screened to identify Republicans conducted March 2-6, Vance pulled 11 percent support, Mandel 20, and Gibbons 22. A Trafalgar Group poll of likely GOP primary voters conducted April 13-14—the two days before Trump’s endorsement of Vance—put Mandel at 28 percent, Vance at 23, and Gibbons at 14. And a new Fox poll of registered voters screened to identify Republicans, conducted April 20-24 and released yesterday, shows Vance at 23 percent, Mandel at 18, and Gibbons at 13.

Granting that those polls have different methodologies and so comparisons among them need to be taken with a grain of salt, they do suggest that Mike Gibbons, Josh Mandel, and J.D. Vance have each had a turn as the frontrunner. And the polls would also seem to show evidence of a “Trump bump” for Vance—a suggestion confirmed by the respondents in the new Fox poll saying Trump’s endorsement would make them more rather than less likely to support Vance, by 42 to 23.

But to further deepen the chaos, according to Fox’s latest poll, 25 percent of registered Republican voters are undecided. And about half of the respondents who named a preferred Senate candidate said they might yet change their minds.

We’re now five days out from the primary. Where does all this leave us?

I’ve been playing a game with my Ohio Republican friends who aren’t in any candidate’s camp: I call them up and ask in my former telemarketer voice if they’d like to tell The Bulwark polling outfit whom they plan to vote for. Although they know it’s me, some of them still have a hard time coming up with something to say. And that’s because the choices among the top contenders just aren’t good—not even for people who voted for Trump both times. They all know the Ohio GOP primary is a pandering contest that the far-right parts of the base are meant to judge.

Some things to keep in mind during this final stretch before primary day:

  • Josh Mandel has an advantage in name ID. It’s the best among the top-tier candidates. This makes sense: He’s been around the longest as an elected official, and he’s won multiple statewide elections.
  • Trump’s endorsement of Vance matters, even at this late hour, despite Vance running an anemic and unsure campaign before Trump made him the Chosen One.
  • We might learn something about Ohio Trump voters depending on how they respond to Gibbons staying out of the MAGA slap fight.
  • Matt Dolan is sitting alone in the corner, seemingly attacked by nobody, thinking about his family’s baseball team. Whatever votes Ohio Republicans toss his way might affect the outcome, but that outcome won’t be a Matt Dolan win.
  • Similarly, Jane Timken will end up with little to show for her tour with the ladies of the Senate, but whatever votes she receives might also affect who wins.

So much for the horse race. What about the ad war?

In March, Vance allies released this ad attacking Mandel for being part of “the establishment”:

It’s effective because it’s true: Josh Mandel has been part of the establishment longer than anyone else in the race—he first held statewide office eleven years ago—and everyone knows  he is a careerist who will do or say anything to get ahead.

Meanwhile, Mandel’s allies are attacking Vance for the Hillbilly Elegist’s 2016 criticisms of Trump, which have been widely discussed in the political press in the weeks since the former president endorsed him. This ad dropped yesterday:

Vance tried to spin this attack on him as an attack on MAGA. No, really: “Josh Mandel and his allies have declared war on President Trump and the entire MAGA movement.” You did that, too, J.D.! Didn’t you see the tapes?

Don’t be surprised if one or two big, nasty ads get onto Ohio airwaves between now and Tuesday. Maybe someone will even make an ad based on this tweet from Donald Trump Jr. last night:

When Ohio Republican primary voters step behind the draw curtain, they will face the following choices:

1) An Ivy League-educated poverty memoirist and anti-Trump elitist who became a hedge-fund guy and a Peter Thiel-funded, Trump-endorsed MAGA convert.

2) A known face, but one that makes you grimace because it belongs to a man whose only care in the universe is stepping onto the next political rung.

3) An investment banker who hasn’t been elected to anything but who has been a consistent Trump supporter.

Of course, voters could go for one of the other four candidates, too.

Writing in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Brett Larkin put it this way:

This U.S. Senate primary has taken Ohio politics to a place it’s never been. With few exceptions, the only time the four leading candidates tell the truth is when they talk about each other.

Sadly, that’s true, and it leaves Ohio Republican primary voters, especially that quarter who are undecided, in the awkward position of having to choose from among candidates based chiefly on their negative traits—and on their perceived devotion to Donald Trump.

Jim Swift

Jim Swift is a senior editor at The Bulwark.