Ohio's Bruising Senate Fight

A key race tightens as $18 million in ads hammer an incumbent senator
Brown (left) says “the voters will see through” the ad blitz; pro-Mandel ads are often funded by outside groups From left: Mark Duncan/AP Photo; Douglas Graham/Getty Images

For a display of the power of unlimited spending in politics, take a look at Ohio, where a barrage of television advertising is threatening to sweep away Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown. His Republican challenger, first-term State Treasurer Josh Mandel, trailed by as many as 14 percentage points this past May, yet two recent polls show the candidates in a statistical tie.

The gap narrowed after $18 million was spent on TV ads supporting Mandel. Much of the money came from independent groups, including Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS, which under the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision can spend without limits on campaigns. Ohio, a bellwether in the presidential election, is also a linchpin in the Republican effort to take control of the Senate.

Brown, 59, has spent close to four decades in politics, including just under 20 years in Congress, and won his Senate seat in 2006. He wears a lapel pin of a caged coal mine canary, his symbol of the need to protect workers, and mixes as easily with union members as with college presidents. “Nobody’s done this job the way I have and worked harder at it,” he says, citing more than 200 roundtable discussions he’s convened with constituents since joining the Senate. The author of a book criticizing free-trade policies, he voted against the 2002 Iraq War resolution in the House and is left of President Obama on such issues as health care and financial regulation.

Mandel, 34, served two tours of duty in Iraq as a Marine reservist. He’s been Ohio’s treasurer since 2011, and before that was a two-term state legislator and a city councilman in Lyndhurst, a Cleveland suburb. If elected, Mandel says, he would focus on deregulation and simplifying the tax code. He has called Brown’s record “ultraliberal” and “hyperpartisan.”

A total of 38,382 TV commercials aired in the race from July 2011 to Sept. 17—27,483 of them for Mandel, 10,899 for Brown—according to Kantar Media’s Campaign Media Analysis Group, which tracks advertising. (By comparison, Procter & Gamble spent $2.8 million for 23,818 TV ads in Ohio during 2011 and $954,000 for 9,747 ads through June of this year.) In the Senate race, Mandel has aired the most ads, 7,238, followed by 6,855 from Crossroads GPS and 6,472 from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Brown’s campaign has aired 5,633 spots. Of the outside ads, the nine groups backing Mandel have paid for 79.4 percent, compared with 20.6 percent paid for by the four organizations backing Brown, including the Senate Democrats’ Majority PAC and the League of Conservation Voters.

The U.S. Chamber said on Sept. 17 that it was launching its fifth “television blitz” in Ohio, including an ad that describes Brown’s votes in favor of energy regulation as a “failed record on energy” that “could cause electricity rates to skyrocket or force layoffs.”

Says Brown: “This wouldn’t be a race at all if it weren’t for the millions of dollars against me from outside, undisclosed interest groups.” For Mandel’s part, he says he’s embarrassed for Brown. “He’s a sitting U.S. senator, and it seems that he’s just stuck on whining.”

— With assistance by Gregory Giroux


    The bottom line: Facing a more than 2-to-1 disadvantage in TV ads, once-safe Ohio Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown is fighting to keep his job.

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