MARIETTA, Ohio — Many Ohio voters describe Josh Mandel as a “young” 35. His hairless chin and wiry frame means even his supporters underestimate his age by a decade.
“He looks 25,” said John Walsh, 72, a retired businessman loafing at the Skyline Café on a Friday afternoon.
“Earlier, you said he looked 19,” called out Steve Barros, the 55-year-old coffee shop owner, across the counter.
“It’s a good thing,” explained Walsh, a registered Republican. “You don’t have to be old to be smart.”
But the state treasurer’s youthful appearance hasn’t made it easier for him in his race against Sen. Sherrod Brown (D). Image matters in politics, especially in a populous state such as Ohio, with 12 million residents. Most voters will never meet Mandel, but they will see his visage on television.
Brown, 59, maintains a slim edge in this Senate race because of his experience and political maturity — both as a Senator and as a 40-year political force in northeastern Ohio. Brown has built a ruthless operation since he was elected as the youngest member of the state Legislature in 1974.
So some see it as poetic that Brown is facing a tough challenge from the man who would be the youngest Senator if elected Nov 6. It’s also fitting that their race degenerated into the most immature rhetoric of any Senate contest in the country. The “liar, liar” taunts between the two candidates induce eye-rolling from voters and seasoned operatives alike.
“It’s like a playground fight during recess,” said one seasoned Democratic operative in Ohio who did not want to criticize Brown publicly. “It’s mainly frustration that Brown can’t put him away because he’s like, ‘Who is this punk?’”
Four Offices in Seven Years
Brown’s campaign never directly takes on Mandel’s age, but its attacks resonate with voters because of it. The state’s senior Senator chastised his opponent for hiring unqualified friends for top slots in the treasurer’s office and for skipping 14 monthly board of deposit meetings.
Most frequently, Brown attacks Mandel for running too soon, too often — seeking four offices in seven years. Mandel served in local office and the state House before being elected treasurer in 2010. He launched his Senate bid the next year, despite promising to serve a full term as treasurer.
Brown’s supporters are less vague about Mandel’s youth at a pancake breakfast for the Senator on Cincinnati’s north side.
“I watched the second debate the other night between Sherrod and that kid,” said Timothy Burke, the chairman of the Hamilton County Democratic Party for almost two decades. “He was as obnoxious as any candidate I’ve seen in a debate.”
In return, Mandel charges that the Senator is too liberal for the state, spent too much time in Washington, D.C., to be effective and that Ohioans need a change. He hits Brown for missing 350 votes during his tenure in D.C. — even though Brown’s Congressional attendance record over two decades clocks in at around 97 percent.
“It’s the ‘Karl Rove way,’” Brown said minutes later in an interview over breakfast. “You attack your opponent on something that you’re really bad on, and that’s what he’s done particularly on those two — voting attendance record and liar.”
‘Youth As Energy’
If that’s the case, then Mandel must be aware of how his youthful appearance plays on the campaign trail. While stumping in parts of southeastern Ohio known as Appalachia (Apple-LAH-cha), he criticizes Brown for his immaturity.
“He looked like a child last night,” Mandel told a crowd gathered Friday morning at the town square in Caldwell. “I kept my poise, my calm and acted like a United States Senator. He was erratic, flailing all over the place, losing his cool.”
It’s an odd statement from a candidate whom many voters view as younger than his years. But it’s clear Mandel’s campaign made a strategic decision early to use his youthful appearance to his advantage. In the first Senate debate last week, Mandel attempted to make light of it, joking that one of his goals is to be shaving by his 36th birthday.
“They see my youth as energy, and passion and a willingness to take on the establishment,” Mandel said, standing on a stone stoop in the river town of Marietta on Friday afternoon.
On the campaign trail, Mandel milks his youth. His supporters — particularly middle-to-retirement-aged women — love it.
“He seems awfully young looking, but I guess he’s older than I think,” said Teri Parks, a 67-year-old retiree at a Mandel stop in Caldwell. “We need some younger blood in there.”
“He’s a nice, young, Marine veteran who stands right in there,” said Jean Glenn, an 82-year-old farmer from McConnelsville. “It will be shocking to the Senate if he gets there because they’re all old. They’re as old as I am!”
Four Decades in Office
The irony here is that neither candidate is particularly young or old — at least by the Senate’s standards.
Brown ranks in the younger half of a chamber that includes three 88-year-olds. If elected, Mandel’s youth would be notable but far from historic because he is five years older than the required age to become a Senator. For example, Vice President Joseph Biden was 29 when he was elected to the Senate in 1972.
Two years after that, Brown graduated from Yale University and, at the age of 21, began his political ascent. He won a state House seat in 1974 and has served in office ever since — Ohio secretary of state then U.S. House then the Senate — with a short, two-year exception.
Mandel tweaks Brown for his almost four-decade career in office. But there’s a reason Brown has been around so long in battleground Ohio. He’s a dogged campaigner.
Many Members won’t leave a room until they shake every hand — and Brown won’t depart the pancake breakfast at the National Association of Letter Carriers Local No. 43 until he’s greeted every supporter who wants to talk to him. But Brown takes it a step further, displaying an intellectual curiosity with every supporter on the scratched wood floor.
Even Republicans privately admit his staff is meticulous, from major casework to garnering grants and writing thank you notes. In an hourlong debate, his campaign disseminated about 30 “fact check” press releases — a large number compared to other Senate campaigns. Mandel’s campaign sent about a dozen.
Brown ticks off the vote totals of nearby counties and details the amount of outside money that has flowed to this race (almost $24 million).
“I feel like he’s got a youthful perspective in a way that’s helpful,” said Kristine Yohe, a 50-year-old Brown supporter at the breakfast. “I think he’s mature and wise.”