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In Ohio, GOP pins Senate hopes on young Jewish Iraq vet

State Treasurer Josh Mandel, a Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in Ohio, is shown during his service as a Marine in Iraq. (Citizens for Josh Mandel)

WASHINGTON (JTA) — As the 2012 campaign heats up in Ohio, Republicans are pinning their hopes on a young Jewish military veteran to unseat Democratic incumbent Sen. Sherrod Brown.

Josh Mandel, a 34-year-old U.S. Marine Corps veteran and the current state treasurer, has faced a number of challenges but he is doing well in the polls. A recent Rasmussen Reports poll showed Mandel only four points behind Brown — a favorite of organized labor and liberals — in a hypothetical match-up.

With Ohio seen as a key presidential swing state and control of the U.S. Senate potentially in play, the race is the focus of national attention from Democrats and Republicans.

“The stakes are really high,” said Joe Hallett, political editor of The Columbus Dispatch. “A lot of what happens in this race will depend on the national climate. The Democrats have twice as many seats to defend in the Senate than the Republicans, and this seat really could determine control of the Senate.”

Mandel, facing five lesser-known candidates in the March 6 Republican primary, is considered the front-runner for the nomination.

After serving three years as a city councilman in the Cleveland suburb of Lyndhurst and two terms as a state representative, Mandel was elected in 2010 as state treasurer. He is seen as a GOP rising star.

“I know Josh was actively recruited by top party leaders and insiders to run for this seat,” said Matthew Brooks, the Republican Jewish Coalition’s executive director. “It was a process that unfolded over several months, with Josh initially not considering the idea. As the support grew and the calls for him became louder, Josh agreed and then fully committed himself to the race and doing what it took to be the next senator from Ohio come November.”

During Mandel’s tenure as a city councilman and state representative, he served in the Marine Corps Reserve and was called into active duty for two tours in the Anbar Province of Iraq.

Mandel told JTA that he was inspired to serve by his grandfathers.

“I’m the grandson of a Holocaust survivor who was liberated by Allied troops, and I’m the grandson of a U.S. Army Air Corps veteran, and these hard-working, gutsy men instilled in me a duty to community and a duty to country,” Mandel said.

While he has served in uniform in the Middle East, he is cautious about making predictions about the region.

Asked whether the Iraq war was a success, he responds, “Time will tell.”

He also said the Arab Spring is “negatively impacting Israel.”

“When terrorist groups are running the countries bordering Israel, it’s not a good situation,” he said. “Time will tell on whether it’s better that Assad will fall.”

Mandel said the United States and its allies face “a common enemy in radical Islam, and it’s an enemy that must be taken seriously.”

One issue on which Mandel differs with Brown is labor policy. Considered a union champion, Brown is outspoken on labor issues.

With Republicans pushing to limit the powers of unions, labor issues have been the subject of acrimonious fights in Ohio and other Midwestern states over the past couple years. In Ohio, the issue heated up in 2011 when Gov. John Kasich, a Republican, sought unsuccessfully to pass a law weakening the bargaining rights of public employees.

Another labor battleground has been so-called right-to-work laws, which prohibit requiring workers to join a union as a condition of employment at a unionized workplace. Neighboring Indiana’s Republican-controlled state legislature recently adopted such a law, and a recent Quinnipiac University poll found that 54 percent of Ohio voters would support a similar law, with 40 percent opposed.

“I believe American citizens should have the right to join a union if they’d like to do that, but they should not be coerced and forced to join. It should be up to the individual,” Mandel said.

On the economic front, Mandel points to his short tenure in the treasurer’s office.

“I think we’re running the most efficient and effective state treasurer’s office in America,” he said.

Mandel highlighted the AAA rating that Standard and Poor’s awarded the state’s $4 billion local governments investment fund that he runs at a time when S&P downgraded 14 similar funds across the country.

Unsurprisingly, Democrats don’t portray Mandel’s record in as positive a light.

“He’s been silent on issues that are most important to Ohioans, whether it’s the Republican budget that would destroy Medicare or China’s currency manipulation, which cost us jobs in Ohio,” said Justin Barasky, the new communications director for Brown’s Senate campaign.

Democrats also have taken aim at Mandel on his campaign finances and job performance.

Two weeks ago, the Ohio Democratic Party filed a formal complaint against Mandel to the Federal Election Commission for using money from his 2010 treasurer campaign to assist in launching his U.S. Senate drive. Ohio law prohibits candidates from using state campaign funds for a federal campaign.

In late January, the Associated Press reported that Mandel did not attend a single Board of Deposit meeting during his first year in office and that he was in Washington for a fundraiser during the January meeting. Mandel also did not attend the board’s February meeting.

Asked by the Toledo Blade about Mandel’s absence, Seth Unger, press secretary for the Ohio Treasurer’s office, said that “the Treasurer directs and empowers his staff of financial professionals who represent him on the Board of Deposit, and has full confidence in his Chief Financial Officer who serves as his designee.”

Last October, Mandel was criticized for receiving a donation of $1,000 from former congressional candidate Rich Iott, who dressed up as an SS officer as part of a group that re-enacted the exploits of a Nazi division during World War II. Iott has insisted that he had no Nazi sympathies.

At the time, the National Jewish Democratic Council demanded that Mandel return Iott’s money. Travis Considine, communications director for the Mandel campaign, responded that “this is a manufactured non-issue to distract from the fact that Sherrod Brown’s radical policies have caused hundreds of thousands of jobs to leave Ohio.”

While Mandel has never served in federal office, his supporters tout his record on Israel. In 2007, as a state representative, Mandel introduced legislation that would divest Ohio pensions from companies that do business with Iran. The Ohio House eventually passed a more modest piece of legislation on the issue.

Brown for his part has faced criticism for not signing on to various Senate letters supported by pro-Israel groups. Ben Chouake, president of the New Jersey-based pro-Israel political action committee NORPAC, said that “the pro-Israel constituency in his state would like to see Brown more active and more of an advocate for the U.S.-Israel relationship. I hope he grows into that role.”

Chouake said NORPAC was not endorsing a candidate in the race. He said the organization was “not against Sherrod Brown, but his record is substantially mixed, so we classified this as a race where our members could do fundraisers for either candidate. NORPAC is not contributing from its general fund to these races, but we will meet and work with both candidates depending on the membership’s motivation to do so.”

NORPAC members held a Mandel fundraiser on Sunday, while the political action committee of J Street is raising money online for Brown. Brown is the only incumbent senator that the J Street PAC is raising money for in this election cycle.

Mandel said that Brown is “not a friend” of Israel, pointing to the senator’s voting record and his endorsement by J Street. But Barasky said that Brown has “a very strong record of standing with Israel.”

“Whether it’s working to eliminate the threat from Iran to ensuring foreign aid to fighting to end our dependence on foreign oil, Sherrod is a friend to Israel,” Barasky said.

Brown has been speaking out recently on issues important to the pro-Israel community. Last year he said he disagreed with President Obama’s suggestion that the pre-1967 lines should serve as the basis for negotiations over borders with the Palestinians. In September, Brown denounced Palestinian efforts to unilaterally seek statehood recognition at the United Nations.

Mandel’s supporters think the Iraq vet will pose a formidable challenge to the incumbent senator.

During his election to a second term in the state house, Mandel captured 72 percent of the vote in a district that includes a sizable Jewish population, which at the time had registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans by a 2-to-1 margin.

“He epitomizes the values of the Jewish community and is someone who has demonstrated an ability to go beyond their base of support in the Republican side and be attractive to Jewish Democrats and Independents,” the RJC’s Brooks said.

The Columbus Dispatch’s Hallett said that Mandel’s fundraising efforts could make this “a close race.”

“You’d have to give the nod going in to the incumbent, but Mandel is not somebody you count out. He is one of the best fundraisers I’ve ever seen,” Hallett said. “He’s relentless on that score and he will have the resources to win this seat, but so will Brown. I think it’s going to be close, and a lot of it will depend on the national outlook.”

(This article was produced in cooperation with The Washington Jewish Week.)