Back when the Ohio Senate candidate Josh Mandel was a young man in politics, he had a spiel in his stump speech about bristling when people told him to wait his turn. Now, as Mandel approaches middle age, it seems that those people were onto something: Mandel just had to wait for the right moment, when his brand of cynicism would be the mainstream of Republican politics.
Much national attention has focused on Mandel’s primary opponent J. D. Vance, who is (in)famous for his memoir, Hillbilly Elegy, and subsequent, excruciating contortions to present himself as a Trumpist. Less attention has come to Mandel, who polls suggest is actually the front-runner—and, given the shiftlessness of the state Democratic Party, the favorite to be the next senator from Ohio.
Don’t blame Mandel for the lack of attention. He’s desperately sought the spotlight with outlandish stunts and a willingness to say anything that he thinks might resonate with voters—in fact, that’s been the sole constant throughout his political career. Mandel once ran on bipartisan appeal, but he’s since cycled through other identities—Tea Partier, proto-Trumpist, and now Big Lie true believer—as they serve him. You can accuse Josh Mandel of many things, and I will, but you cannot accuse him of insufficient hustle.
Mandel’s attention-seeking antics are finally starting to bear (poisonous) fruit. He’s drawn national notice for baselessly claiming that the 2020 election was fraudulent. “I believe the election was stolen from Donald J. Trump,” Mandel said at a GOP primary debate on October 25. The line won Mandel applause from the audience and condemnation from people like me, just as he intended.
Though he began his career railing against career politicians, Mandel’s been gunning for office since his undergraduate days, despite showing no apparent interest in policy. He was twice the head of the student government at Ohio State University, then enlisted in the Marine Corps Reserves. Opponents have long insisted his enlistment was a cynical calculation, but Mandel did serve two tours in Iraq. He ran for city council in Lyndhurst, a Cleveland suburb, the same year he graduated from law school. Three years later, in 2006, he was elected to the Ohio House of Representatives, but that was just a way station too. Mandel won another new job, as Ohio state treasurer, in 2010—after a campaign tainted by an ad in which he falsely portrayed his opponent as a Muslim.
Mandel has been desperately trying to get another promotion ever since. In 2011, amid buzz about him running for U.S. Senate against the Democrat Sherrod Brown in the next year’s election, Mandel solemnly told The Washington Post, “A lot of people are calling and encouraging me to do it, but what I’m really focused on is running the Treasurer’s office here in Ohio.” In fact, Mandel started his term by skipping 14 straight meetings of the Board of Deposits, which he chaired, and he did run for Senate.
Just 34 when he launched his 2012 campaign, Mandel brought a fresh face, a squeaky voice, and a sense of humor. In a 2010 speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference, he’d quipped that while some people hoped to reach certain offices by certain ages, he just wanted to be shaving by the time he was 35. It was a good line, but the problem was that Mandel accentuated his inexperience and age by appearing to have practically no ideas about policy, as Molly Ball wrote for The Atlantic, except a general support for the Tea Party brand of financial conservatism then ascendant in the GOP. The race was mostly a mud fight, but Brown emerged on top.
Mandel returned to work—or at least to his titular role—in the treasurer’s office, where he spent lavishly on advertisements in which he appeared alongside the popular Ohio State football coach Urban Meyer and launched a cryptocurrency tax-payment program that was possibly illegal and went almost completely unused by Ohioans.
As soon as the 2016 election was over, and with his tenure as treasurer nearing a term limit, Mandel announced plans to run against Brown again in 2018, a prospect that Ohio Democrats appeared to relish. Mandel ended his campaign in early 2018, citing his wife’s health, but not before his first, fitful attempt at emulating Trumpism. Mandel, who is Jewish, publicly sided with the alt-right trolls Jack Posobiec and Mike Cernovich in a feud with the Anti-Defamation League.
The central question of Josh Mandel’s career at this stage is what happens to a political wunderkind when he is no longer kind and no longer wunder, either. Out of office, with two failed Senate races behind him and his marriage having crumbled, Mandel seemed to be in a tough spot, but he received a gift when Senator Rob Portman, a veteran moderate Republican, announced that he would not run for reelection in 2022. Mandel is determined not to let the chance go to waste. The campaign has been rocky, though, and the primary is still months away: He was thrown out of a Republican National Committee donor retreat he tried to crash. He was thrown out of a southwest-Ohio school-board meeting for a disruptive anti-mask stunt. Staffers have quit over the toxic environment of the campaign, including a tumultuous relationship between Mandel and a staffer.
Yet Mandel has led pretty much every poll of the race, buoyed by his name recognition and steady stream of shenanigans. In June, he posted a video of himself clumsily lighting a mask on fire in the stairwell of a building, like a teenager smoking a clandestine joint at school, except less fun and less productive. In September, he stopped in front of a Trump sign in a cornfield to film a poorly lit video, in which Mandel—the grandson of a Holocaust survivor—referred to the federal government as the Gestapo and seemed to encourage violent resistance. He also tweeted inhumanely about refugees, though his grandparents came to the United States as refugees. The Wall Street Journal reports that even his allies think he’s trying to get thrown off Twitter and Facebook à la Trump.
Mandel has been blessed with weak competitors. State Senator Matt Dolan, scion of a TV empire and part owner of baseball’s Cleveland Guardians, has mounted a quixotic Trump-skeptical campaign. Jane Timken, a former state-GOP chair, narrowly missed out on an early Trump endorsement and has failed to collect any momentum since. Mike Gibbons, a banker, has railed against woke culture to little effect. Vance has risen to the second-place spot more recently. Even as he wrestles with his past criticism of Trump—“If I actually care about these people and the things I say I care about, I need to just suck it up and support him,” he told Ball this summer—he has tried stunts of his own. He has tweeted positively about Alex Jones, incoherently about family leave, and cruelly and trollishly about Alec Baldwin.
This is sloppy Trump pantomime: Vance seems to be talking about Baldwin because he knows the actor is a Trump nemesis. The problem with this shtick is that Vance became prominent as a teller of hard truths about white, working-class Americans. His Trumpist makeover not only seems like pandering but also undermines that persona. As my colleague Tom Nichols wrote about Vance recently, “His attempts at authenticity are so grating because they are so blatantly artificial.”
If Vance is a phony, though, Mandel is what we might call a genuine phony: He makes little pretense of being anything other than a craven operator, as his years of changing guises show. This, more than any claims about fraudulent elections, is where Mandel really overlaps with Trump, another genuine phony, whose only authentic characteristic is his sense of grievance. Thanks to the former president, it might finally be Mandel’s turn.