Less than a year before the election, the nationally crucial Ohio race for the U.S. Senate is in pretend mode.
State Treasurer Josh Mandel, the all-but-certain Republican nominee, is raising money feverishly and attacking incumbent Democrat Sherrod Brown relentlessly, but he has yet to declare his candidacy and is doing his best to pretend he’s too busy being treasurer to run for Senate.
Brown, too, is pretending he’s not a candidate, refusing to respond to Mandel’s charges, even as an Ohio Democratic Party press aide assigned full time to the race blisters Mandel with near-daily attacks.
“I’m not going to start answering individual charges [Mandel’s] making because he’s not a candidate,” Brown said last week after a Columbus union rally on State Issue 2. “There is no candidate in this race. I’ve not announced for re-election.”
When the two candidates stop pretending and start running for real, the race will be raucous, political experts agree, because at stake is control of the Senate. Currently, Democrats hold 51 seats and Republicans hold 47. Two senators are independents. Republicans need four seats to take the majority and, just like in the presidential race, the outcome could hinge on Ohio.
“If I knew now that Mandel would beat Brown, I’d call the Senate for the Republicans instantly,” said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.
At this juncture, Mandel, 34, is a distinct underdog against Brown, 59, who has sought to hone an image as a friend of everyday workers during a three-decade career as an Ohio secretary of state and member of Congress. An Oct. 26 Quinnipiac University poll gave Brown 49 percent of the vote and Mandel 34 percent.
After 14 years in the U.S. House, Brown defeated incumbent Republican Sen. Mike DeWine by 12 percentage points in 2006, benefitting from an environment in which Republicans were hurt by scandals and a highly unpopular president, George W. Bush. But 2012 is light-years away from 2006 in politics.
Almost six years later, the president is still unpopular, but this time he’s a Democrat, and the 2012 environment could be just as unkind to Democrats as it was to Republicans in 2006. President Barack Obama’s popularity numbers are low, the economy is still crummy and the environment, in general, isn’t good for incumbents.
Swing voters who swung to the left in the elections of 2006 and 2008 went back to the right in 2010 and appear ready to remain there, said Jennifer Duffy of the Washington-based Cook Political Report.