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Ohio Senate race scrambled by Josh Mandel's surprise exit

010518 Ohio DD photo
Ohio state Treasurer Josh Mandel was deemed the presumptive Republican nominee against Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio. But now that Mandel has pulled out of the race, several other Ohio Republicans may consider taking his place. (AP Photo/Phil Long, File)

The Ohio Senate race was upended Friday when the Republican front-runner, state Treasurer Josh Mandel, withdrew from the contest in a surprise move that left the GOP primary and shape of the general election uncertain.

Just one month until the Feb. 7 filing deadline, and four months before the May 8 GOP primary, wealthy investment banker Mike Gibbons is the lone Republican standing in the race to challenge incumbent Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown, a hard scrabble progressive who defeated Mandel six years ago to win a second term. But GOP insiders expected that with conservative favorite Mandel out of the race, several Republicans would consider running, with his exit possibly sparking a crowded and contentious primary.

"Brown is beatable," said a Republican operative privy to the party's internal polling, requesting anonymity in order to speak candidly. "Ohio is becoming Missouri. He’s more beatable than a lot of people who we’re saying we can beat this year."

Some political insiders monitoring the race cautioned that given Mandel's late exit, a competitive primary might fail to materialize as Republicans who might otherwise be interested in running for Senate demure, deciding that it is simply too late in the cycle to mount a formidable campaign and raise the tens of millions of dollars required to prosecute a viable challenge to Brown.

A Republican insider in Ohio also warned that Brown is more equipped, politically, than some inside the GOP realize.

"With 2018 looking like a Democratic year and Brown strong and well funded, I don’t see a long line of people trying to bash their brains in against that mountain," this Ohioan said. "Gibbons might bet his wish and be the guy."

Senate Republicans, holding a slim, 51-49 majority after losing a special election in Alabama last month, are targeting states like Ohio that President Trump won big in 2016 to pad their numbers. Brown defied the odds to win re-election in 2012, but was boosted by President Barack Obama's re-election. Trump's job approval ratings nationally are abysmal, which could help Brown win a third term in 2018, although the president's popularity, and the strength of his party, is holding up better in states like Ohio.

Mandel, 40, who announced for his second Senate bid early in the cycle and was deemed the presumptive nominee, announced that he was ending his campaign to attend to his wife and her undisclosed health issue.

Gov. John Kasich, at odds with Trump since the 2016 presidential race, immediately removed his name from speculation. His chief strategist, John Weaver, tweeted: "To all the press calling, the answer is no. Bigger fish to fry. #TwoPaths." The hashtag appeared to be veiled hint that Kasich is eying the 2020 presidential contest.

Republicans are now waiting to hear from Rep. Jim Renacci, a wealthy automobile dealers, and Lt. Gov. Mary Taylor. Both are running in the crowded gubernatorial primary to succeed the outgoing Kasich, and could switch to the Senate race. Renacci brings the ability to self-fund a campaign, giving him an advantage if he were to make the jump. He is worth in excess of $31 million, making him the 13th richest member of Congress, according to Roll Call.

"Either Mary Taylor or Jim Renacci would be outstanding Senate candidates," Ohio Republican strategist Mark Weaver said, adding that Taylor would be formidable due to her name recognition and gender. "I would not be surprised if you saw another member of Congress or two express interest in this."

Republicans who could take another look at the race include Rep. Pat Tiberi, who represents a Columbus-area district and previously considered running.

Tiberi could face challenges in a GOP primary because of his affiliation with Kasich and might additionally be disinclined to run because he had already decided to resign from Congress on Jan. 15 to take a lucrative job as president of the Ohio Business Roundtable. Yet the thoughtful congressman, who played a key role in passing the federal tax overhaul, was sitting on $6.6 million in campaign cash, giving him an edge over other potential candidates. His candidacy is considered unlikely.

"I don't think Tiberi does it, though," predicted a Republican strategist in Washington.

Gibbons was undeterred. His campaign claims to have assembled an "extensive" grassroots operation statewide, having picked up endorsements from some county GOP officials and at least one county central committee. Gibbons is worth around $100 million, according to financial disclosures, and has suggested he's willing to spend considerably to fund his campaign.

Gibbons, who has tried to position himself as the political heir to Trump in Ohio since he entered the Republican primary against Mandel last year, urged the party to unite behind him in a statement provided to the Washington Examiner.

“Our prayers go out to Josh, his wife and family. Diane and I are hoping for the very best for them," Gibbons said, adding:

"For months we have been laying the groundwork to defeat Sherrod Brown in November with one of the strongest grassroots organizations of any outsider in Ohio. Now is the time for Republicans to unite as one so we can defeat Sherrod Brown. As a conservative outsider, no one is better positioned to end career-politician Sherrod Brown’s career than I am. I look forward to working with Republicans and independents around Ohio to end Sherrod Brown’s political career.”

Brown on Friday limited his comments to wishing Mandel and his family well via a statement from his campaign manager.