After taking a break from Ohio politics, is Josh Mandel Trump's No. 1 ally in the state?

Jessie Balmert
Cincinnati Enquirer
Former Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel spoke at a "USA Thank You Tour" for President Donald Trump in December 2016.

COLUMBUS – Former Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel launched his U.S. Senate campaign on the premise that he was former President Donald Trump's No. 1 ally in Ohio.

Mandel, the first Republican to throw his hat in the ring to replace Sen. Rob Portman, is expected to face a heated GOP primary that tests each candidate's allegiance to Trump in a state the former president won by 8 percentage points, twice. Former Ohio Republican Party leader Jane Timken, U.S. Rep. Bill Johnson and other pro-Trump candidates are considering bids

"I've been President Trump's No. 1 ally in the state," Mandel said of his Trump credentials. "I've been proud to carry the Trump banner when others were hiding in the closet and I've showed a willingness to take on leaders of my party when it means standing up for conservative values." 

Was Mandel Trump's No. 1 ally in Ohio? That depends on whom you ask and when.

In 2016, Mandel was the first statewide candidate to endorse Trump at a time when it was politically unpopular to do so. Then-Gov. John Kasich had won the Republican primary in Ohio – his only statewide victory as a presidential candidate – and still enjoyed support from the Ohio Republican Party.

Mandel offered to provide staff members for Trump's presidential campaign in Ohio. (Mandel initially supported Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and voted for him in Ohio's primary that year.) 

"Out of everyone, Josh was there first and held in there," said Kettering Clerk of Courts Rob Scott, who led Trump's 2016 primary campaign in Ohio. "He never wavered."

When a political bomb dropped just weeks before the November election, Mandel continued to support Trump, despite calling Trump's comments on an Access Hollywood video "offensive and wrong."

"For the sake of the Supreme Court, Second Amendment, religious liberty, fight against radical Islam and many other issues, his endorsement and vote for Mr. Trump still stands," Mandel's spokesman said at the time

How involved was Mandel in 2020?

But those involved in Trump's re-election bid in Ohio say Mandel had little to no role in the 2020 campaign. Mandel wasn't a surrogate like U.S. Rep. Jim Jordan or even Democratic state Rep. Bernadine Kennedy Kent. He wasn't a regular at political or fundraising events either. 

"Josh Mandel wasn't involved in the Trump campaign in Ohio in any meaningful way and anyone who suggests otherwise is being misleading," said Cameron Sagester, former political director for the Ohio Republican Party. "Thousands of volunteers, grassroots activists, elected officials and party leaders put in a tremendous amount of time and work to win Ohio for Donald Trump. Josh Mandel was not one of them."

Mandel largely disappeared from Ohio politics after dropping out of the 2018 U.S. Senate race against Democratic incumbent Sherrod Brown, citing his wife's health. Republicans were left scrambling to find a candidate with one month until the filing deadline.   

"I am not aware of him being at any events or doing anything," said Chris Hicks, a Clermont County Trump supporter, of Mandel's involvement in the 2020 campaign. 

However, Mandel and his supporters say he played an active role in Trump's re-election bid in Ohio.

"No one in the state of Ohio did more than Josh Mandel to re-elect President Trump," said Jared Borg, deputy state director for Trump's 2020 campaign and Mandel's former director of public affairs. "He’s always been President Trump’s No. 1 ally in Ohio and that was true in this last cycle as well."

Mandel, in his campaign announcement, said he was one of the only Ohioans who was a member of the "Trump 500," a group of Trump supporters who raised over $500,000 for the former president's re-election bid. Trump did not disclose – and federal law does not require him to – the names of his top campaign bundlers. 

Mandel also signed a letter, with nearly 700 other veterans, defending Trump after The Atlantic reported the president disparaged military members. 

Mandel's campaign says his family helped organize Jews for Trump in Ohio. The group has no social media presence and hosted no events published in local media. Compare that to Women for Trump, which held a bus tour across Ohio, or Black Voices for Trump, which opened "community centers" in Ohio cities. 

Who's the most pro-Trump candidate?

If both Mandel and Timken run for U.S. Senate, former Cincinnati Mayor Ken Blackwell said it would be difficult to say who was a bigger Trump supporter. 

"I'll never fall into the trap of rating the two. They both get the former president’s seal of approval," Blackwell said. 

In the end, Mandel's history with Trump is less important than how he speaks to Trump voters in Ohio, Hicks said. 

"At least he’s speaking to those values," said Hicks, adding that he'd support Mandel over Timken. "There’s a lot of people who want fundamental change to the swamp that is the Ohio Republican Party."