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Just How Competitive Is the Ohio Senate Race?

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo

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).

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