TOLEDO, Ohio — Jason Kander says he met Josh Mandel back when he wasn’t Josh Mandel.
In Kander’s telling, Mandel called him up out of the blue a decade or so ago to pitch a project. It made sense why. The two men had similar profiles: Jewish combat veterans in their early 30s. New statewide officeholders in the Midwest. Rising stars in their respective parties — Kander as a Democrat and Mandel as a Republican.
That was the pitch. Mandel told Kander he wanted to collaborate on something like a cable news segment or show, as opposing “moderates” from the Heartland.
Kander ultimately wasn’t into it and passed. Since then, he “hasn’t kept in touch with the guy at all,” he told HuffPost in December.
Now Kander can hardly believe the Josh Mandel who’s running for U.S. Senate in Ohio.
“I’ve watched his performance over the past few years, and it’s a very different guy than the guy I briefly met over the phone,” said Kander, who was Missouri secretary of state when Mandel was Ohio treasurer. “I’ve seen clips of him where he sounds like he’s running in a Republican primary in southwest Missouri. I’ve been to Ohio. I know that’s not what it sounds like,” he said. Kander, who has his own Midwestern drawl, was referring to clips of Mandel, a Cleveland native, adopting a fake Southern accent. “I don’t know who that’s for, but it’s so strange.”
Mandel seems to know exactly who it’s for. After two other attempts at the Senate, Mandel has been heavily courting the evangelical “Make America Great Again” vote in this pivotal primary to replace Republican Rob Portman.
And he’s willing to pretty much do anything to win it. No position is too extreme — Mandel edges right up to the line of open racism and radicalizing against democracy. All immigrants are “illegals,” all Black Lives Matter activists are “thugs,” all non-Trump-loving Republicans are “RINOs” (Republican in Name Only, the worst GOP-on-GOP burn), all Democrats are “socialists” trying to destroy the country. Among his rivals, Mandel is the loudest proponent of the “big lie” that Donald Trump won the 2020 presidential election. He says he wants the House select committee that’s investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol by extremist Trump supporters replaced with a “Nov. 3 commission” to probe what was, by all expert accounts, a free and fair election.
Mandel’s tweets can read like a deranged bot trying to imitate Trump.
Dec. 15: “In Joe Biden’s America, you’ll be arrested for trying to enter a Cheesecake Factory without your papers. This is not a free country.”
Jan. 10: “Separation of money and state, not separation of church and state. #bitcoin.”
Jan. 11: “Freedom over Fauci. Bibles over Biden.”
Last year, Mandel filmed himself lighting up a face mask with the caption “Freedom.” Then he posted a photo with a waitress whom he praised for reportedly showing up to work sick, and he doubled down after massive blowback.
If that strikes you as Mandel doing his best to channel Trump, I’ve been unwillingly included in Mandel’s Trump act in the course of reporting on him. He had no problem going after me at a pseudo-MAGA rally with hundreds of Republicans. It was just more evidence of the measures he’s willing to take to ingratiate himself with the base.
To better understand Mandel’s political evolution, I interviewed more than a dozen political insiders and personal contacts of Mandel’s, going back to when he was student government president at Ohio State University in the late 1990s through his last campaign for Senate in 2018, which was cut short after he abruptly dropped out.
I kept hearing the same things: that Mandel, a former golden child of the GOP, used to be perceived as more moderate before evolving into a staunch conservative and then veering hard right as a Trump acolyte; that he’s obsessively hardworking and ambitious; that he scares and embarrasses some members of his own party. To the degree it’s possible to discern anyone’s true political motivations, people following Mandel don’t completely buy that any of this is genuine. That Mandel, a practicing Jew, is running his campaign through Ohio’s evangelical churches, feels to some like a move calculated for strategic political exposure to the MAGA base.
“Many of these people who have been involved [in politics] a long time, they’re realizing that Josh is a phony,” said Ralph King, a former “tea party” organizer and Trump delegate from northeast Ohio. “The new people, they like him because they believe his bullshit. That’s all it is, is bullshit.”
It’s not hard to find people in Ohio politics who are completely horrified by Mandel. “He’s a really disturbing person,” said David Pepper, the former chair of the Ohio Democratic Party, who added that Mandel is like far-right Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) but “worse.” A longtime GOP operative thinks “the ambition has consumed” Mandel and said watching Ohio’s GOP primary unfold makes him “want to vomit.” Another Republican, who has known Mandel for decades and is secretly rooting for one of his opponents, said it’s “mind blowing” that Mandel has somehow managed to get support from both the Jewish and evangelical Christian communities, which tend to both support Israel. “The first thing you have to do when you deal with evangelicals is you have to at least believe in Christ. Like, that’s sort of what it takes to get in the door,” the person said.
Republicans requested anonymity to discuss Mandel for fear of alienating the party’s future Senate nominee. After all, they still want to win the seat.
“Josh kind of built his career on being a practical, center-right Republican,” said a former county GOP chair who has known Mandel since he was in college. “He did not come up through the ranks being a bomb-throwing, provocative divider.”
Morgan Harper, a progressive underdog running for the Democratic nomination opposite Mandel, summed up the impression he tends to leave on Democrats.
“I am scared as a woman, as a Black person, as a daughter who has a mother who lives off of a monthly pension, of getting this guy anywhere near a seat of power in the United States Senate,” Harper said during a recent debate with Mandel, who that same night had argued there should be no separation of church and state.
“Josh kind of built his career on being a practical, center-right Republican. He did not come up through the ranks being a bomb-throwing, provocative divider.”
Democrats especially have good reason to be worried — because whatever Mandel is doing is working.
The limited polling that’s been done on the race has shown Mandel with a steady lead in a six-way GOP primary. Among his challengers — which include a famous author, an investment banker, a luxury car dealer, a former state GOP chair and a state senator — Mandel is the only candidate who has won statewide, which is assumed to be what’s giving him an edge. And in what’s looking more and more like a red wave election year, whoever wins the GOP nomination is well-positioned to win the general election in a state Trump carried twice by 8 percentage points.
That means Mandel could soon join Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Hawley in the far-right corner of the Senate, alongside lawmakers who objected to certifying the 2020 election and who could do it again in 2024.
Pepper said the man who, as a young city councilman and state treasurer, boasted about wearing out his shoes campaigning door-to-door would have no problem now objecting in Congress to a fair election. (Mandel’s spokesperson confirms that had Mandel been in Congress in 2021 he would have voted with the senators who objected to certifying some electoral college votes.)
“His big source of pride was not right-wing anything; it was mainly about how hard he worked,” Pepper said. “And he does work hard, I’ll give him credit.”
Pepper said he finds it most troubling that Mandel is capable of changing up his political persona so dramatically based on political expediency.
“To me, the people who are truly dangerous are the ones who will do or say anything, depending on the moment,” he said. “They’re not about anything in the end except their own quest for power. That’s Mandel.”
* * *
It wasn’t easy to get a minute with Mandel after his debate last month with Harper, the Senate race’s lone progressive. Held at a Baptist church in Columbus, the meeting was conceived as a publicity stunt for both candidates — low stakes and good headline fodder. But Harper’s team came armed with more supporters. Afterward, one of them approached Mandel to confront him about calling BLM activists “thugs,” the line that seemed to get the most attention that night.
Julian Mack, a 37-year-old racial justice organizer from Toledo, asked Mandel to stop using what he considers a racist dog-whistle to describe demonstrators. A circle formed around Mack and Mandel, bracing for an escalation. “Think about it and have a nice day,” Mack finally said.
“Stop bashing people’s homes and I’ll stop calling you thugs,” Mandel told him.
“I didn’t bash anybody’s home, man,” Mack said. To which Mandel responded, “Black Lives Matter bashed my friend Paul’s home.”
After a few more seconds of back and forth, they ended with a handshake.
Mack said it’s crazy how Republicans can knock BLM for isolated incidents of property damage but not denounce the Trump supporters who ransacked the U.S. Capitol. “It was never about property damage,” he said.
Repeatedly during the debate, Mandel argued the Democratic Party “condescends” to people of color like Harper and insisted, puzzlingly, that her opponent, Rep. Tim Ryan, would have been happy to debate her if she were a white male. (Ryan, the front-runner, has so far dodged debating Harper.) “What we don’t need is Josh Mandel speaking for the Black community,” Harper eventually snapped back.
I was finally able to reach Mandel to ask him what he makes of the critics who think this is all a big troll. He bristled.
“No one has the right to speak on my behalf,” said Mandel, 44 and baby-faced (he jokes about looking 25). “I’ve been a constitutional conservative and fighter since Day One.”
What is Day One? Mandel’s actual Day One was Sept. 27, 1977. Born into a Jewish family from suburban Cleveland, the son of an attorney and a preschool teacher, Mandel grew up in Beachwood, home of the second-largest per capita Jewish population in the country.
In a speech delivered at dozens of evangelical churches, Mandel describes himself as being the descendent of Holocaust survivors who were saved during the war by “courageous Christians.” It’s usually at this point when Mandel — who was once accused of running a subtly racist attack ad against a Black opponent that linked him to a mosque — declares that “Judeo-Christian” values are the nation’s bedrock and pledges to go to Washington with the “Constitution in one hand, the Bible in the other.”
Mandel’s Judaism would shape his time at Ohio State, where he arrived as a freshman in 1996. He joined the Jewish fraternity Alpha Epsilon Pi and was twice elected president of the undergraduate student council. Mandel is still known in certain graduate circles for his involvement in both organizations.
Jared Kamrass had a similar trajectory at OSU. Kamrass graduated more than a decade after Mandel but was also in AEPi and student government. After Mandel became a state treasurer, Kamrass graduated and went to work in Democratic politics. Kamrass said he can’t stomach how Mandel is representing the Jewish community, especially since he could become the first Jewish GOP senator elected in more than a decade. Kamrass encouraged me to write that he believes Mandel is a sociopath.
“I’m a Jew from Cincinnati. He’s a Jew from Cleveland. But our upbringing was essentially the same,” said Kamrass, who knows members of Mandel’s ex-wife’s family. “It’s beyond me that the descendent of Holocaust survivors can actively voice the feeling that there’s one true religion in America. He’s an embarrassment to his family and his community.”
In 2012, during his first Senate run against Sherrod Brown — the only Democrat besides judges who has won statewide in Ohio since President Barack Obama — members of the prominent and (and liberal) Jewish family that Mandel married into published an open letter in The Washington Post after Mandel said in a debate he didn’t support marriage equality. “Your discriminatory stance violates the core values of this family,” nine members of Cleveland’s Ratner real estate dynasty wrote. Mandel has since divorced his first wife, Ilana Shafran Mandel, with whom he has three children, and has begun dating his campaign fundraising director, Rachel Wilson. That relationship was the subject of reporting in The Columbus Dispatch for allegedly creating a “toxic” work environment in the campaign organization.
Everything that followed Mandel’s OSU graduation seemed designed to propel a political career: earning a law degree from Case Western University, joining the Marines and serving two tours in Iraq, and running for a seat on the Lyndhurst City Council in his 20s. It was in Lyndhurst where Mandel made his earliest political enemies.
The city’s then-mayor, Joe Cicero, later described Mandel as a “wolf in sheep’s clothing.” Cicero told a Cleveland Plain Dealer columnist in 2017 that Mandel “fooled everyone in the city. He was opportunistic from the start, one of the worst things that ever happened to Lyndhurst. Josh Mandel is inadequate as a human being.” This was after Mandel had condemned the Anti-Defamation League’s decision to publish the names of key members of extremist hate groups.
The first story that Mandel told me after the debate, when I asked him about his authenticity, was about his city council days. He told me how he spearheaded the passage of a property tax rebate over what sounded like the universal objections of his colleagues.
“The entire city council, Democrats and Republicans, were against it. I took on the establishment,” he said — the “establishment” being the government in a village of 13,000 in suburban northeast Ohio.
He offered another story about how, as a state representative a few years later, he objected to the Ohio House speaker asking a preacher to tone down overtly sectarian prayers on the House floor. While Mandel’s critics say he didn’t get much done as a state lawmaker, Mandel said he fought Common Core education standards that “ended up setting the table for all this critical race theory and transgender baloney.”
It was also as a state representative that Mandel said he got to know Christian pastors during the introduction of the first anti-abortion fetal heartbeat bill. The bill was finally sent to the governor’s desk in 2019, well after Mandel had left the legislature. The law has not gone into effect while the Supreme Court prepares to rule on a case that could overturn Roe v. Wade, an outcome that Mandel said he very much supports.
“For me, these aren’t words. I’ve actually got scars. I’ve actually been in the foxhole with these pastors. Ask any of my opponents to show up at a church and try to get 500 people there,” Mandel told me in a church where there had not been 500 people, that night at least.
In the same conversation, Mandel said Ryan, the likely Democratic nominee, has “small hands like marshmallows.” When I asked Mandel how he came up with that, he said Ryan “is the antithesis of a fighter. When I was in the Marine Corps, we had this term, it was ‘soup and sandwich.’ The way we described some guys, Iraqis we came across, was soft. You know, you dip your sandwich and soup and it gets soggy? That’s what Tim Ryan is — soggy.”
* * *
What can sometimes get overlooked in the attacks on Mandel is that he served for nearly a decade in one of the most unsexy, bureaucratic positions imaginable.
As Ohio treasurer, Mandel oversaw the department that collected taxes, moved money around state government, and managed debt and investments.
Even in an age when experience isn’t considered a political qualification, Mandel still talks about how he launched an online portal for financial transparency and was the first treasurer in the nation to accept tax payments in Bitcoin. The latter initiative, celebrated at its onset, was ended by his successor over concerns the contract with a payment processor hadn’t been properly awarded. It was later reported that fewer than 10 businesses had actually opted to pay their taxes in Bitcoin.
To win that office in 2010, Mandel needed to beat an incumbent Democrat, Kevin Boyce. Mandel’s campaign launched an attack ad that Democrats blasted as fearmongering toward a Black opponent, using language that attempted to connect Boyce, a Christian, with a mosque where one of his deputies reportedly advertised a job. Mandel’s campaign defended the spot as attempting to highlight cronyism in the treasurer’s office. But for many it was obvious the Islamophobic message the campaign was trying to send. And it worked. Mandel smoked Boyce in the election.
Boyce told HuffPost that Mandel later called to apologize about the ad (I talked to a few people who had been burned by Mandel who said he later reached out seeking to make amends) and they had a smooth transition. Boyce, now a county commissioner, said he doesn’t harbor any bad feelings.
“What I can say is campaigns can often get out of the candidate’s control easily. But they are oftentimes a reflection of the candidate’s value set,” Boyce said.
Does he think the ad ultimately cost him the race? “It did have a real impact. We were polling much higher, and then it was just like an immediate drop. And even when they pulled the ad after, the damage had been done,” he said.
“What I can say is campaigns can often get out of the candidate’s control easily. But they are oftentimes a reflection of the candidate’s value set.”
Mandel wasn’t able to pull off the same feat when he ran against Sherrod Brown, the rumpled union-boosting Democratic senator, in 2012. An incumbent running for a second term, Brown beat Mandel by 6 percentage points. When Mandel, facing a likely rematch against Brown in 2018, suddenly dropped out of the race, rumors swirled that Mandel was trying to head off another big loss — or that he was trying to hide something that was potentially career-endangering.
The rumors were just that. Mandel attributed the move to his wife’s health and an unspecified condition that required him to be with her at home. After the announcement, Mandel slid out of public view for the remainder of his treasurer’s term, joined some corporate boards and got quietly divorced, then reemerged as the first Republican to jump in the Senate race.
Having moved to Ohio in mid-2018, I only caught the tail end of Mandel’s tenure as treasurer. But I began covering him closely as a Senate candidate for The Blade, Toledo’s daily newspaper, in 2021.
I had probably had a total of three one-on-one conversations with Mandel when he stunned me at a GOP convention in Strongsville, Ohio, last May by singling me out in front of a crowd of at least 500 die-hard Republicans. It was at an all-day event that featured hard-right candidates like Mandel and headliners Matt Gaetz and Candace Owens. It was a pro-MAGA, anti-establishment crowd, and I was there to try to take its temperature.
When it was his turn on stage, Mandel pulled out his phone and read aloud some of my tweets about Gov. Mike DeWine, a Republican who ran afoul of his base during the pandemic.
Mandel apparently took issue with me, a local newspaper reporter with all of 3,000 Twitter followers, tweeting the observation that DeWine’s vaccine lottery was a good political move in light of the fact that Ohio had one of the lowest vaccination rates in the country at that point. (A bunch of states went on to copy DeWine’s idea with mixed results.)
“She’s in this room somewhere,” Mandel said, prompting the crowd to pan around looking for me as they booed.
“Think about this for a second. This is the definition ... she’s supposed to, like, write stories about DeWine, not be on his campaign. She’s supposed to write stories about me, not be on my opponent’s campaign,” he said. (Never mind that not only is DeWine not his opponent, but they could possibly be sharing the same GOP ticket.)
“Like, you can’t make this stuff up,” he continued. “Oh, here’s another thing she said — it’s a ‘morale booster.’ Raise your hand if you think DeWine giving away your tax money for a sweepstakes is a morale booster. Hey, Liz, why don’t you take a look at how many hands are up right now.”
I understood that turning me into a political prop was Mandel’s Trumpy way of trying to curry favor with the audience. But there were still consequences. A source I had been talking to for most of the day asked whether Mandel had been referring to me, and I when I said yes, he shook his head and walked away.
Mandel did the same thing — run away, through a back door — when I tried to talk to him about it after the event.
I never tried to raise it with him again, and Mandel has been cordial with me ever since.
* * *
Who is Josh Mandel for? Meet David Ensminger.
A 54-year-old trucker, Ensminger appeared to be one of the few people at the Mandel-Harper debate who wasn’t affiliated with either campaign. He just showed up.
Ensminger told me, and Mandel, and anyone else who would listen, that he’s all-in for Mandel.
“You speak to the things I want to hear,” he told him.
Mandel’s support for the “Trump agenda” is what sold him. “I think it’s horrid that there’s a narrative that Trump supporters are cuckoos following a cult leader. I’ve believed all the things that Trump believes since it was 1977 and I was 10. I was brought up in a conservative household that believed in freedom — freedom of religion, freedom for atheists — and not centralizing power in the federal government,” he said.
It is not hard to see how Mandel wins over voters like Ensminger. Mandel also has the support of the anti-tax Club for Growth, a major fundraising booster, and Ohio Value Voters, a faith-based group.
And in fairness to Mandel, nearly all of his opponents are trying to squeeze into the same lane — Mandel is just taking up the most space for now.
A close second is J.D. Vance, the “Hillbilly Elegy” memoirist and venture capitalist. But Vance is having a hard time distancing himself from his past remarks bashing Trump (he even brought his father on the campaign trail to vouch for him). To boost his MAGA cred, Vance sought the endorsement of Marjorie Taylor Greene, the radical Georgia congresswoman, who campaigned with him last weekend. Vance also has Hawley’s backing.
The rest of the field can’t keep up. Jane Timken, the former Ohio GOP chair, posted a weak fundraising number this week. Mike Gibbons, an investment banker, and Bernie Moreno, a luxury car dealer and entrepreneur, are also using their personal fortunes to prop up their campaigns. Matt Dolan, a state senator whose family owns the Cleveland Guardians baseball team, is running as a moderate, testing whether Trump’s base cares for another Rob Portman. It’s not clear they do.
Mark Pukita isn’t often mentioned in the top tier of candidates alongside Mandel and Vance. But the tech entrepreneur had a controversial breakout moment when a radio ad he ran pointing out that Mandel was Jewish was deemed anti-Semitic. “Are we really supposed to believe the most Christian-values Senate candidate is Jewish? I’m so sick of these phony caricatures,” the narrator says in the now-canceled spot. Pukita was asked about it during a debate in November, and the story blew up.
Pukita admits the ad was bad. He insists that he was just trying to get across how Mandel is an “ever-morphing, tell you anything that you want to hear” politician.
“He will say and do anything and pander to anyone to get elected,” Pukita said. “That’s what I was trying to point out, and I could have done a better job of it. But now we are.”
Pukita said he’s picked up on something interesting lately with Mandel. He believes that ever since the controversy with the radio ad, Mandel has been toning it down a bit during debates. It’s subtle, but Pukita swears there’s been a change.
“The minute you expose his act, he stops it,” he said, “or significantly ratchets it back.”