Ohio Senate Race Close as $18 Million in Ads Flood In

Ohio Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown
U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown, Democrat from Ohio, said more money is being spent against him than in any U.S. Senate race. Photographer: Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images

Ohio Republican Josh Mandel started a bid to unseat U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown trailing by as much as 17 percentage points in polls. He’s since racked up more fact-checker censures for complete inaccuracy than any Ohio politician.

That hasn’t stopped Mandel, propelled by what Brown says is $18 million in television advertising by outside groups, from clawing his way back. One poll released Sept. 13 shows Mandel within seven points of Brown. The race is a test of the power of super-PACs to help turn a first-term, 34-year-old state treasurer whom a former governor calls “an empty suit” into a contender against a political fixture.

“This wouldn’t be a race at all if it weren’t for the millions of dollars against me from outside, undisclosed interest groups,” Brown said in an interview Sept. 5 at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina. Brown said there has been more money spent against him than any Senate candidate.

Mandel, a youthful-looking former Marine who jokes about being able to shave when he’s 35, said the race is essentially tied because voters are turning away from the “ultraliberal, hyperpartisan” Brown.

“He’s just stuck on whining, and whining and whining about voters being educated on his record,” Mandel said in a telephone interview.

Gaining Traction

Republicans are fighting hard to take Ohio in the presidential and Senate races, and advertising to cast Brown’s record in a negative light has made the race closer, John Green, a University of Akron political scientist, said in a telephone interview.

Green said his sense is that while Brown is ahead, the race is competitive. The outcome also will be tied to the presidential contest and which side turns out voters, he said. Ohioans supported President Barack Obama in 2008 and then swept Republicans, including Governor John Kasich, into office in 2010.

An NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Marist Poll released Sept. 13 showed Brown leading Mandel 48 percent to 41 percent among registered voters, including those leaning toward a candidate, after Brown enjoyed a 14 percentage-point lead in the same poll in May. Two polls in August had shown the race deadlocked.

Flooded Airwaves

Mandel’s ascent has been enabled by a deluge of commercials.

From July 2011 through Sept. 17, there were 38,382 television ads aired in the race, according to data from New York-based Kantar Media’s CMAG, which tracks advertising.

Mandel has aired the most, 7,238, followed by 6,855 from Crossroads GPS, the nonprofit group founded with help from Republican strategist Karl Rove, and 6,472 from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the largest U.S. business lobby. Brown has aired 5,633 spots.

Of the outside groups airing commercials, nine backing Mandel have aired 79.4 percent, compared with 20.6 percent by four organizations supporting Brown. Those include the Washington-based Majority PAC, which supports Democratic senators and candidates, and the League of Conservation Voters, a nonprofit environmental group based in the U.S. capital.

During the 30 days that ended Sept. 17, only the Montana Senate race between Democratic incumbent Jon Tester and Republican Representative Denny Rehberg attracted more ads, data show.

Gridiron Metaphor

The Ohio advertisements generally cast Brown as a liberal who supports Obama most of the time and backed measures that harmed business and suppressed jobs, such as the president’s health-care overhaul.

The U.S. Chamber said yesterday it was starting its fifth “television blitz” in Ohio, including an ad that criticizes Brown’s votes on energy regulation and his “failed record on energy.”

Brown, 59, a former U.S. House member elected to the Senate in 2006, said his television budget for that campaign was $6 million. He said he expects as much as $30 million will be spent against him with television ads, radio spots, direct-mail pieces and even electronic billboards in Columbus, Toledo, Cleveland and Dayton.

Imperiled Bird

Brown has a gravelly voice and curly hair that is sometimes mussed. He mixes easily with union members and college presidents and wears a lapel pin of a canary in a cage, a nod to the canaries once use to test for toxic gases in coal mines. It’s his symbol of the need to protect workers.

Brown, who served in Congress from 1993 to 2007 and previously was an Ohio secretary of state and state legislator, points to more than 200 roundtable discussions he has convened since taking office and said, “Nobody’s done this job the way I have and worked harder at it.”

He emphasizes his support for the federal assistance to the auto industry in 2009 for buoying the state’s economy. Ohio’s jobless rate was 7.2 percent in July, below the national rate of 8.3 percent. Ohio’s improvement in economic health ranks sixth in the U.S. from the first quarter of 2011 through the first quarter this year, based on the Bloomberg Economic Evaluation of States.

Besides highlighting the advertising spending, Brown’s campaign has issued repeated e-mails calling Mandel a liar. Of the 23 statements by Mandel reviewed by PolitiFact, the nonpartisan fact-checking organization, 26 percent were rated “pants on fire,” or completely inaccurate.

Democratic Faith

“That’s frustrating that somebody can attract that kind of outside money and continue to lie about my record, about other things,” Brown said. “But the voters will see through it. I’m confident of that.”

The “pants on fire” ratings included a statement Mandel made in a March 1 news release that Brown “is one of the main D.C. politicians responsible for Ohio jobs moving to China,” which PolitiFact characterized as “Bold, yes. Accurate? No.”

When asked by Bloomberg News to cite a company that moved, Mandel’s campaign replied in an e-mail that “unnecessary federal regulations and uncertainty in the job market are two problems created by Washington that have negative effects on our economy that cause businesses to move jobs overseas.”

Mandel also declined to take a position on the auto bailout, saying he was not in the Senate when it was approved.

Former Democratic Governor Ted Strickland said Mandel is “an empty suit” and that three debates in October will help Brown prevail.

“Josh Mandel is exactly the kind of person who should never be in public office,” Strickland said in an interview in Charlotte. “There is nothing there. He has no principle.”

‘Bad Apples’

Mandel disputes the ratings from PolitiFact, a project of the Tampa Bay Times and partner The Plain Dealer in Cleveland as coming from “a small group of bad apples.” He calls the Democrats’ comments about him “hogwash.”

“Sherrod Brown is desperate, and so he’s focused on making personal attacks on me,” Mandel said.

The candidate, who keeps his hair cropped close as in his days as a Marine, works a room by methodically shaking hands and gives out his mobile phone number in speeches.

In a Sept. 11 speech to the Dayton Area Chamber of Commerce, Mandel said he was inspired to join the Marine Reserves in 2000 and to run for public office by his grandparents, one liberated by Allied troops in Europe during World War II and another who served in U.S. Army Air Corps. He served two tours in Iraq, according to his campaign biography.

Most Liberal

Mandel said that he won races for city council in Lyndhurst, a Cleveland suburb, in 2003, the state legislature in 2006 and treasurer in 2010 by wearing out shoes knocking on doors. As a U.S. senator, Mandel told the chamber group, he would ease burdensome regulations, simplify the tax code and be part of a “new generation” of leaders.

“The only way for us as citizens to change Washington is to change the people we send there,” Mandel said in his speech, echoing the theme of television ads he is airing.

Brown, who was named in the National Journal’s 2009 and 2010 rankings as the “most liberal senator,” is more liberal than the Ohio electorate, and there’s now enough money to publicize that record, said Robert T. Bennett, chairman of the state Republican Party.

“Josh Mandel has introduced himself well to the Ohio voter as being the young, energetic new voice,” Bennett said in a telephone interview. “This is a year where longevity in politics is not the best thing.”

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