Downward Spiral

Losing a Senate Race Was Just the Start of Josh Mandel’s Bad News

Two years ago, Ohio’s treasurer was seen as a future senator. Now he’s fighting for reelection to his state office, dragged down by scandals—and a cautionary tale for other candidates.

Joel Prince/Getty

Every election cycle, there are rising stars from each party who, once they become a senator from State X or governor from State Y, are poised to become national figures. Then they lose and return to obscurity, serving in state or local office. But for some politicians, even after losing, things can get even worse.

Take, for example, Ohio state Treasurer Josh Mandel. Less than two years ago, he was a baby-faced 35-year-old Marine veteran heralded as a future senator who could help lead Jewish voters out of the Democratic Party and into the GOP. Now Mandel is facing a tough reelection campaign for his state office and is linked to several minor scandals that have grown out of his failed, gaffe-prone Senate campaign.

Mandel has been subpoenaed to testify in the trial of Benjamin Suarez, a businessman in North Canton, Ohio, who allegedly funneled illegal contributions to Mandel’s campaign. “Our cooperation with the authorities is ongoing and leads us to believe that if Treasurer Mandel testified, it would be damaging to the defense,” a spokesperson for the state treasurer’s campaign told the Cleveland Plain Dealer. So far in the trial, at least one Suarez employee has testified that his boss asked him to donate to Mandel and that the donation was promptly reimbursed. Prosecutors have alleged that Suarez became an avid Mandel backer after the businessman successfully wrote a letter to California officials on Mandel’s letterhead asking them to drop a lawsuit against Suarez. There’s no indication that Mandel knew of the reimbursement scheme, and his campaign refunded donations linked to Suarez, but it’s never good for a public official to be subpoenaed in a campaign finance trial.

Mandel also is under scrutiny for a March 2013 traffic accident in which a Jeep Grand Cherokee owned by his Senate campaign was totaled. The problem is not the accident but that he was traveling in a car owned by his Senate campaign more than four months after he lost to Sen. Sherrod Brown on Election Day. Mandel has said he was renting the vehicle for official purposes related to his state office, which is legal. But the rental check for the jeep didn’t clear until four months after the accident, raising suspicions. Using the vehicle to campaign for reelection or for personal use would violate federal campaign law.

No campaign has ever had a perfect record of compliance with federal campaign finance laws, but Mandel’s issues show how quickly the mistakes of a losing Senate candidate’s campaign can spiral, endangering an entire political career. And Senate hopefuls who lose their races in 2014 could potentially find themselves facing major obstacles in the future. Perhaps the most endangered in this scenario would be Alison Lundergan Grimes, the Democratic opponent of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in Kentucky who has become a rock star among her party’s donor class. If Grimes loses to McConnell, she would face reelection as secretary of state in the Republican-leaning Bluegrass State in 2015, and any baggage from her Senate race would likely carry over into that campaign.

Of course, for Grimes and other elected officials bidding for Senate seats in the fall, including Iowa state Sen. Joni Ernst and Thom Tillis, speaker of the North Carolina House, there is an easy way to avoid Mandel’s fate. They just have to win in November.