Brown And Mandel Would Be A Rare Senate Rematch

Sep 10, 2017

Nothing is ever certain in politics – we found that out in a bigly way in last year's presidential election – but it is highly likely that the 2018 U.S. Senate race in Ohio will be rematch of 2012.

We eschew betting in general – especially on baseball – but we would bet a dollar to a donut that, as in 2012, incumbent Democrat Sherrod Brown will be facing Republican challenger Josh Mandel, the state treasurer.

Right now, it would appear be the only U.S. Senate rematch in the country in 2018 – a year when there are 33 seats up for election. A whopping 25 of them are held by Democrats – a fact that makes the Democratic Party's ambition to retake the Senate all the more daunting, although certainly not impossible.

Sherrod Brown
Credit Howard Wilkinson / WVXU

There is no question about it – a Brown-Mandel rematch would be one of the most high profile Senate races in the country, likely to draw a record amount of money – including millions in independent expenditures from out-of-state third parties on both sides.

"The fact that Brown won with only a hair over 50 percent of the vote in 2012 speaks to the competitive nature of a rematch in Ohio,'' political analyst Geoffrey Skelley of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics told WVXU.

Skelley is associate editor of Sabato's Crystal Ball, a weekly politics newsletter published by Larry J. Sabato, director of the Center for Politics.

Last week, Skelley wrote a column for the Crystal Ball looking at the history and nature of U.S. Senate rematches since 1914, when the 17th Amendment to the Constitution declared that the people and not state legislatures would choose U.S. Senators.

There have been only 46 such elections nationwide since then; and only one in Ohio.

That was in 1976, when Democrat Howard Metzenbaum, who had run and lost in 1970, defeated Republican incumbent Robert Taft Jr. – father of a governor and grandson of a president.

But that wasn't quite the same as Brown-Mandel. The 1970 election was for an open seat; this time it will be an incumbent defending his Senate seat.

Brown finds himself in a special category, Skelley said. He has one of the 10 Democratic-held seats in states that, in Nov. 2016, went for Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton for president.

And in Brown's case it wasn't all that close – Trump won Ohio by about eight percentage points.

Josh Mandel
Credit Joseph Fuqua II / Pool photo

Mandel has to get by two GOP primary challengers – Cleveland banker Mike Gibbons (who has help from some people with ties to Gov. John Kasich, who most assuredly does not like Mandel) and Melissa Ackison of Marysville. They should pose no problem for Mandel.

History is what poses a problem for Mandel, the Iraq war veteran who began running for the Senate almost immediately after being elected state treasurer in 2010.

"It's not easy,'' Skelley told WVXU. "It's usually very difficult for candidates from the president's party to beat an incumbent of the other party. That's just the way it usually goes in mid-term elections."

Nonetheless, Mandel is running a campaign where he is making it clear he is a true believer in Trump.

In July, Mandel rattled some Ohio Republicans when he came out in in support of a California blogger whom the Anti-Defamation League lists as a person associated with the "alt-right" movement. The Anti-Defamation League is a Jewish civil rights group; and Mandel is Jewish.

Mandel tweeted that he was "sad to see (the Anti-Defamation League) has become a partisan witchhunt group targeting people for political beliefs."

"When you have a man who is Jewish criticizing the Anti-Defamation League, that is pretty unusual,'' Skellley said. "For some people, that was beyond the pale."

But this is not going to be a walk in the park for Brown, Skelley said.

"Slender margins should be in store for Brown, assuming he wins next year,'' Skelley said.

In Sabato's Crystal Ball, Skelley wrote that Mandel "could benefit from the hard-right shift that Ohio had in 2016, which could complicate Brown's re-election effort."

"This was the third most expensive race in the country in 2012, and it could end up being the most expensive this time,'' Skelley said. "It's too early to tell. But it is going to be extremely competitive."

Brown, Skelley said, is unquestionably a populist-style Democrat who finds himself running in a state that seems to moving to the right.

But that is not necessarily a bad thing, Skelley told WVXU.

"The populist things that Brown has pushed over the years, such as opposition to NAFTA, might help him among a lot of those voters who ended up going for Trump last year,'' Skelley said. "It might inoculate him from the charge that he is too liberal for Ohio."

Out of the 46 "rematch" Senate elections nationwide since 1914, in only six did the loser of the first election go on to win six years later. Metzenbaum-Taft in 1976 was one of them.

Can Mandel become another one? The odds are against him. Only time will tell.