A win for the 44-year-old could be a blueprint for Republican victories without the support of the former president
As he and his highest-profile national surrogate Ted Cruz held a captive audience over the crowd of roughly 100, the jabs towards so-called “RINOs” – Republicans In Name Only – seemed constant.
That’s why Mr Mandel’s effort to come out on top of Tuesday’s GOP primary for his state’s open Senate seat is so important: for Republicans, it could be a blueprint for winning without the support of the former GOP president and Mar-a-Lago kingmaker.
Make no mistake – there was no love for centrist Republicans like Liz Cheney or Adam Kinzinger, known for their efforts to support the investigation into the 6 January attack on Congress, at Saturday’s rally. Both were called out by name and booed by the crowd of mostly elderly Mandel supporters interspersed with a handful of under-40s. But there were also signs of significant discontent towards JD Vance, the Trump-endorsed author now surging to a top spot (though still within just a few percentage points) past Mr Mandel in recent polls, as well as the general trend emerging in the endorsement considerations of the former president.
At a minimum, the Mandel supporters who packed into the High Street Baptist Church suggested that an uphill battle awaited Mr Vance as he tries to pick off supporters from his biggest rival in the hours ahead of Tuesday’s primary. One of the churchgoers who had reservations about him was Carol Guthrie, who told The Independent that issues of faith were holding Mr Vance back from reaching religious voters in the race.
In particular, Ms Guthrie and her friend, who joined her at the rally, described a recent mailer from Mr Vance (or on his behalf) which bore a Bible verse.
“It could be that he was promoting a Bible verse on his ticket,” she remarked, nodding to her friend, “it was at your place the other day.”
“That made me so mad I just tore it up,” Ms Guthrie commented.
Asked about Mr Trump’s support for Mr Vance, Ms Guthrie indicated that it didn’t affect her support for Mr Mandel and speculated that the former president wasn’t as engaged in the local politics of the races in which he has made endorsements as he could or should be.
“I don’t think he knows what he’s promoting,” she said.
She could be right. At a recent rally in Nebraska, the former president clearly confused the names of the two top candidates when describing to the crowd his recent endorsements: “You know, we’ve endorsed Dr Oz. We’ve endorsed …J P, right? JD Mandel, and he’s doing great. They’re all doing good.”
Mr Mandel’s campaign is leaning heavily into the support of these religious voters. As he described in his remarks on Saturday, he is “the only Senate candidate in Ohio that’s running his campaign through churches instead of traditional Republican Party groups”, and rather than focus on supposed “kitchen table” issues like rising consumer prices he spent much of his remarks to his supporters on the fight to restrict abortion and efforts to allow parents to use state-funded vouchers for private school tuition (including, importantly, religious schools) or home-schooling.
His efforts didn’t stop there. He was introduced at Saturday’s rally by Pastor Charles Mainous, head of High Street Baptist, and accompanied to the event by another pastor who gave remarks on his behalf at a previous church rally.
Mr Mainous prayed for Mr Mandel and gave a passionate speech on his behalf wishing him victory in the race. Born to Jewish parents, the Cleveland native described how his family was hidden by Italian Christians during the Holocaust in part of his remarks to the crowd on Saturday, noting that Nazi forces would have killed the family protecting his had they been discovered.
The pastor pointed to that outreach to Ohio’s faith communities as the reason he backed Mr Mandel “when you have three good conservatives” in the primary.
“We do like his focus, you know, on the spiritual side of things, and I know there’s a lot of different issues to think about but that was important to me.”
He did concede, however, that there was “a huge Trump effect” pushing Mr Vance in striking distance of the frontrunner.
The race is tight. An Emerson College poll taken at the end of last week put Mr Mandel and Mr Vance within two percentage points of each other; a Fox News poll released just a few days earlier put the gap at 5 points. Complicating the race’s dynamics is persistent support remaining for fellow GOP candidates Matt Dolan and Mike Gibbons, the former of whom was just three points behind Mr Mandel in Emerson’s poll.
Between the two frontrunners a side battle of national surrogates has begun. Mr Mandel was joined by Mr Cruz onstage at High Street Baptist while just a few miles away at the same time JD Vance was campaigning alongside two of the furthest right-wing members of the house, Matt Gaetz and Marjorie Taylor Greene. He’s also hit the trail with Donald Trump Jr, who remains eager to act as a surrogate for those Republicans privileged with the former president’s endorsement.
Ms Greene was happy to lay into Mr Mandel on Saturday in Newark, Ohio at the Trout Club resort where Mr Vance spoke to fans.
“I didn’t see the sincerity there. I didn’t see the authenticity. I just saw someone that learned to speak MAGA, and just repeat it over and over” she said to reporters. “I’m tired of those candidates.”
Mr Cruz, by comparison, did not mention Mr Vance at all in his remarks to the crowd. He instead delivered a joke-filled address riffing on moments like Joe Biden “shaking hands with the air”, the first half of which focused almost exclusively on national issues and could have easily been seen as practice for his own future political ambitions.
Speaking to The Independent, he expressed confidence in Mr Mandel’s chances even as Mr Vance’s once longshot bid has rocketed into contention.
“All across the state of Ohio, we’re seeing incredible energy, incredible enthusiasm,” he proclaimed. “We’ve been barnstorming the state yesterday and today and we’ve seen packed houses everywhere we’ve gone.”
He however demurred from speculating on how large the former president’s shadow was cast over the race, or even from criticising Mr Vance.
“Well, look … every voter is going to have to make his or her own decision. There are a lot of good people in the race who I like and respect,” said Mr Cruz.
The Texas conservative himself sought out the evangelical Christian vote in 2016 when he battled Donald Trump for the GOP presidential nomination, eventually falling to second place behind the juggernaut that was Trump’s first and so far only GOP primary bid. He is considered one of many Republicans who could potentially seek a bid in 2024, on a list that includes Mr Trump as well.
As for Mr Mandel himself, he offered only a few words to The Independent when asked about the state of the race but portrayed his confidence in his chances ahead of Tuesday while offering the former president an olive branch for a potential general election endorsement.
“We’re gonna win on Tuesday and I look forward to working with President Trump to advance the Trump America First Agenda and retire [speaker Nancy] Pelosi and [Senate majority leader Chuck] Schumer once and for all,” he declared.