Just How Competitive Is the Ohio Senate Race?

by Stuart Rothenberg May 25, 2012 · 9:21 AM EDT

Some races are easy to handicap. Two essentially evenly matched candidates in a competitive state normally produces a tossup rating, while a popular entrenched incumbent against an under-funded, unknown challenger almost always produces something close to a safe contest for the incumbent.

But the Senate race in Ohio is more complicated. It’s certainly a competitive state, as recent presidential races have shown. And it’s regarded as one of the cycle’s tossups in the 2012 race between President Barack Obama and presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney.

Yet Sen. Sherrod Brown (D) knocked off then-Sen. Mike DeWine (R) six years ago, and his 9-point margin wasn’t a squeaker. Obama won the Buckeye State by more than 4 points in 2008. Brown served eight years in the Ohio House before winning two terms as Ohio’s secretary of state. He lost a bid for re-election in 1990 and two years later was elected to Congress. He served seven terms in the House before being elected to the Senate in the 2006 Democratic wave year.

Brown has a reputation as a political animal — he was often mentioned as a possible Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chairman but was never selected by his party’s leader for that post — and he is a relentless campaigner who runs very aggressive campaigns. In other words, he doesn’t pull his punches when the going gets tough.

Brown and Republican challenger Josh Mandel have a lot of things in common.

Brown was 20 years old when he was elected to the state House, and he was just shy of his 30th birthday when he first won statewide office. Mandel, who served two terms as undergraduate student body president at Ohio State University, was 26 when he was elected to the Lyndhurst City Council and 29 when he was elected to the Ohio House (in a very Democratic district). Two years ago, at the age of 33, he was elected as state treasurer.

Both men were politically ambitious from a young age and had early electoral successes. Both have also proved to be strong fundraisers.

Brown spent $10 million in his 2006 challenge to DeWine, and he showed

$8.1 million raised and almost $6.3 million in the bank on March 31 this year. Mandel raised almost $7.3 million as of the end of the first quarter of 2012 and had almost $5.3 million on hand, remarkable figures for a young challenger in his first federal race.

Indeed among individual contributors, the two men were virtually even, with Brown having raised $6.35 million and Mandel $6 million.

I must admit that I was surprised when I interviewed Mandel in April.

I was impressed that he showed up alone, without a retinue of handlers to protect him. He was poised and smart. He was never rattled (even though I tried). He answered questions willingly, unlike some candidates who are overly defensive or act as if reporters are enemy combatants (admittedly some are).

Mandel talked about his accomplishments, his positions on issues and his campaign’s message and strategy. And he even apologized for not being able to answer some overly insider questions about his campaign’s media buys. In fact, if he had known the answers to those questions, I would have been concerned that he was spending too much time on campaign strategy and not enough being the candidate.

I was a little surprised that Mandel, an observant Jew who belongs to a modern orthodox synagogue, was as conservative as Brown is liberal.

According to National Journal’s ratings, Brown tied for being the fifth most liberal Senator in 2011. He voted against the Defense of Marriage Act, the Keystone XL oil pipeline and the Central American Free Trade Agreement. He voted for the Obama health care reform plan and the stimulus, favors gay rights and is among the most liberal Senate Democrats on foreign policy. He supports legal abortion and the Employee Free Choice Act.

Mandel, a Marine who served two tours in Iraq, favors repealing the Obama health care law and supports the approval of the Keystone pipeline. He has the support of the National Right to Life political action committee and opposed card check.

On almost every measure but one, Brown and Mandel appear to be perfectly evenly matched. They are a tossup if there ever was one.

But that one measure is why I regard Brown as having the advantage. Both Roll Call and the Cook Political Report rate the race as Lean Democratic, while my newsletter has it as Tossup/Tilt Democrat.

Mandel isn’t merely young looking. He could pass for 16 years old. I have a hard time believing that voters will see the GOP challenger as mature enough and prepared enough to be a Senator now.

Thirty years from now, Mandel probably will be thankful for his youthful looks, and I have no doubt that he one day will be a prominent political figure in his state. But right now, his youthful appearance is a considerable liability in a race against Brown.

Of course, I’m certainly not dismissing Mandel’s candidacy this year. Since I have the race as rated Tossup/Tilt Democrat, I obviously think Mandel will be very competitive, and could well win, in November.

But Mandel probably needs Romney to carry the state in the presidential race and Buckeye State voters to view the Senate contest as a referendum on an Obama-Brown tandem if the young Republican is going to defeat the incumbent. Keep an eye on the race to see if those things are happening.