COLUMBUS, Ohio — Republican hopes to unseat liberal Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown in Ohio next year are riding on Josh Mandel, a boyish-looking, 33-year-old Marine veteran whose fledgling campaign has been shaken by allegations of questionable campaign cash and ethical lapses — and a broken promise.
Touted as a rising GOP star after knocking off an incumbent by 14 points to take the state treasurer's seat last fall in his first statewide race, Mandel has emerged as a prime target for Democrats in a key swing state.
A July 21 Quinnipiac University poll showed Brown beating Mandel 49-34 percent. Even though Mandel faces a difficult race against Brown, Democrats have already hit the challenger on several fronts:
- Mandel told Ohioans that he would serve at least four years as treasurer, but launched his U.S. Senate bid just three months after he took office. Democrats are circulating a video of him making the promise, hoping to embarrass Mandel.
- Ohio Democrats have filed a complaint with federal election officials alleging Mandel improperly used taxpayer resources to help his Senate campaign, citing his treasurer's office Web postings and emails that closely matched Mandel's solicitations to potential donors.
And there are other concerns about his campaign:
- A TV ad Mandel aired during last year's treasurer's race falsely implied that his opponent was Muslim, followed by photos of Mandel in fatigues in a combat zone. It was panned at the time as a political low blow.
- He's three months late filing his required personal financial disclosure statement with Senate officials.
- An Ohio newspaper recently highlighted $100,000 in contributions to Mandel's campaign from a Canton businessman who is a major GOP donor, his employees and their spouses. The paper said many of the employee-donors had never given to a federal candidate before and probably couldn't afford $5,000 donations, raising questions.
- And Mandel is facing trouble from his own party because of a video showing him cheering former Democratic Vice President Al Gore at a 2000 rally.
Yet Mandel, a fiscal conservative, has shown himself to be a prolific fundraiser. He collected $2.3 million in the second quarter, eclipsing Brown by a wide margin. Brown reported raising $1.5 million for the quarter.
That money, coupled with a string of high-profile GOP endorsements, has helped Mandel gain early credibility as a challenger, despite only serving in statewide office since January.
Mandel has won endorsements from leading Republicans, including Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, Rep. Jim Jordan, and Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina, a kingmaker promoting conservative Senate candidates and the tea party movement. Club for Growth, a leading conservative group, also backs him.
Mandel says he's done nothing wrong. He said he knows of no fundraising irregularities, he regrets his anti-Muslim ad and he'll file his financial disclosure form after he finishes consulting with Senate officials about some compliance issues.
Mandel, who served two tours in Iraq as an intelligence specialist, said he felt a call to duty to run for the Senate, despite his pledge to serve his treasurer's term.
"I was drafted into this race by a good mix of Republicans, Democrats and independents throughout Ohio who feel that our state cannot survive with six more years of Sherrod Brown, and our country cannot survive four more years of Barack Obama," said Mandel. "As a city councilman, state legislator and U.S. Marine, I have never said 'no' to answering a call."
Gerald Austin, a veteran Democratic consultant from Ohio, sees Mandel as brash and untested.
"He's a wise guy," Austin said. "He's young and he thinks he can conquer the world. Everything he's done so far suggests maybe he can. But he's stepping up to the big time, prime time on the national stage."
Ohio Republicans surged back into power last year in a key swing state, seizing control of every statewide office and both chambers of the state legislature. Against that backdrop, the vocal Brown has been the state's highest-profile defender of Obama's policies and agenda, including a health insurance overhaul that Republicans are trying to reject through a November ballot initiative.
The Senate race's timing posed problems for many of the Ohio GOP's stars. Statewide officeholders who might have been interested— such as Lt. Gov. Mary Taylor — just took new offices in January and are reluctant to bail on their new jobs so soon.
The Ohio GOP's best known national names — House Speaker John Boehner and Jordan, for example — are in enviable roles at the national level. Mandel's early fundraising prowess is helping fend off other challengers.
Democrats pounced on a recent newspaper report that the owner of an Ohio direct marketing firm, his employees and their spouses gave $100,000 to Mandel's campaign. Some donors listed their occupation as "writer," ''copywriter" or merely "marketing," according to the report in the Toledo Blade.
A spokesman for the marketing company told the Blade the firm did not reimburse employees or provide money for the contributions.
Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a nonpartisan watchdog group, said the contributions raise questions.
"Those contributions don't make sense," she said. "They don't seem likely. When you have a campaign, you are under some responsibility to be clear that the money you are raising is not illegal. You can't willfully turn a blind eye."
No incumbent president or governor has won re-election in Ohio when unemployment has been higher than 7.2 percent, and the voter sentiment behind that pattern tends to carry to the Senate contest. Ohio's unemployment rate in July was 9 percent.
Mandel said he's used to facing long odds.
"I like being the underdog," he said.
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