The old man in the paratrooper beret is up at the front of the church with Ohio Senate Candidate Josh Mandel and he is yelling. “I fought the Communists!” he yells. The back of his jacket says USAF Pararescue. “In Laos, in Cambodia…” Things get a bit indistinct here but it comes back around. “That’s what the cabal was doing! They were trying to take the lives of … of little babies!” Josh Mandel is clapping as the man embraces General Mike Flynn and just absolutely hollers the last line, voice cracking with emotion.
Mandel is grinning and loving what he sees. In this house – Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in Norwood, Ohio – they love troops. “I think we need more men and women in the U.S. Senate who have worn the uniform and carried a weapon in a foreign land,” Mandel says. His lawn signs say SEND IN THE MARINE. Mandel has spent the last ten years trying to get deployed to the U.S. Senate, and has spent the past year trying to make the case that he was the MAGA-movement’s best hope to sweep the buckeye state. But last week, the Commander in Chief’s call went out to a different Marine, when former President Donald Trump endorsed author, venture capitalist and former public affairs officer J.D. Vance in Ohio’s crowded primary. So what do you do when the biggest name in Republican Politics snubs you? It turns out, there’s only one thing to do: double down and call in the General.
“Let me say it very clear: I believe this election was STOLEN, from Donald Trump,” Mandel booms from beside the lectern. But besides that line, Mandel largely keeps Trump’s name out of his mouth. Instead, he plays the hits, getting big cheers and groans every time he hammers home another signifier of the right wing’s culture war against the liberal cabal brainwashing our children in schools, aborting babies, and yes, stealing elections (he also mentions OhioCheckbook, the government transparency site he built as State Treasurer, but for some reason that doesn’t snag the crowd). And for Thursday’s events across the state, he brought backup: former national security advisor Michael Flynn, who resigned from his post after 22 days when he was accused of lying about his contact with Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak.
“Most people would have cowered,” Mandel says, after Flynn opened for him at Immaculate Conception. “But he fought the deep state and won!”
“I want a fighter,” Brenda Beard, who showed up to the 8:00 a.m. rally on Thursday says. Trump’s endorsement carried a lot of weight, she says, but in its absence, “The People’s General” still has a lot of sway. “Honestly – Flynn’s endorsement means a lot,” Beard says. “I think what happened to him was a travesty.”
Josh Mandel probably thinks what just happened to him was a travesty too. Up until Good Friday, everything was going his way: polls had him as the frontrunner, with a narrow lead over financier Mike Gibbons, who dumped millions dollars of his own money into ad buys early in the race, and a comfortable one over Vance, who is currently dumping millions of Silicon Valley Vampire Peter Thiel’s money into the race. We’re still waiting on results of an independent post-endorsement poll, though Vance’s internal numbers now show him 7 points ahead. The Trump bump is real – and could only get bigger after this Saturday’s rally outside of Columbus.
It all poses an interesting challenge for Mandel: What do you do when you’re running as the pro-Trump candidate, but Trump has given his blessing to someone else? For Mandel, the answer to losing out on Trump’s endorsement is to get even Trumpier. And so he’s back on the trail, bleating about the culture wars and espousing right-wing radicalism — and bringing in Flynn to fortify your credentials.
For their part, Mandel’s fans, however, don’t seem too worried about the lost endorsement. “I don’t think the Donald Trump endorsement is going to make or break anybody in this race,” says Jim Birch, an attorney who came to see Mandel speak at Immaculate Conception.
Even without the endorsement, Mandel claims he’s got the grass-roots. He’s “getting outspend heavily,” but is still “winning because we have this army of Christian warriors.” Mandel, who grew up in a Jewish suburb of Cleveland and got married in Jerusalem, is running a campaign stopping almost exclusively in evangelical Christian churches. And boy do they love him there: Flynn is far from the only backup Mandel brings along. A stop at Victory Christian Church in Kettering on Thursday was sponsored by Dayton Right to Life, a hardline anti-abortion group whose executive director Margie Christie, says she broke off from statewide organizations because they were endorsing candidates who supported exceptions to abortion laws in the case of rape. (She also shouts out OhioCheckbook, which she says she uses to keep track of Planned Parenthood funding, though that line doesn’t quite land for her either.) Mandel, she says, was the only candidate who fully completed her group’s abortion values survey.
At several stops on Thursday Mandel brought out Amy Kissinger, a self described “momma bear” with a sterling-silver crew cut who sits on the Cambridge City school board, where she says “we are cranking out socialists by the thousands and the tens of thousands.” Kissinger is a big hit – hurling fire about the need to get out there and start taking schools back. “Florida is eating our lunch on this,” she says, referring to that state’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill.
In his stump, Mandel has correctly identified that this is what plays: the MAGA movement’s biggest culture war right now is based on terrifying people about what’s happening to their kids. Mandel’s children – Rosie, 9; Judah, 7; and Gideon, 5 – are one of the first things he talks about: “I send them to religious school for a reason,” Mandel says. “They study Bible for half the day and secular education for the other half. Down the street in government school they’re trying to infect their minds.” One centerpiece of Mandel’s stump is an anecdote from his friend “Mike,” who claims his (Mike’s) 8 year old daughter was forced to do an exercise in school where students were sorted along racial lines into “affinity groups,” and white children were labeled “bystanders and oppressors.” “Little girls with bows in their hair,” Mandel muses after this, to angry groans and murmurs from the crowd, “being told they’re oppressors.”
This is all part of a plan, Mandel claims — one designed by socialists to take control of the country. The socialist playbook, he says, is comprised of steps like “getting god out of society,” taking guns away (“Abolish the ATF!”), and interfering with freedom of speech (at this point he often reads one of his suspension letters from Facebook). (The playbook itself appears to be a much-recycled conservative meme from 2014 that misattributed several of these “steps” to Rules for Radicals author Saul Alinsky.)
His audiences – largely retirees and white-collar workers or businessmen who can afford to be at a campaign rally before noon on a weekday – eat this stuff up. “You gotta tell Donald Trump who he should be endorsing on Saturday,” a woman named Ginger tells Flynn as he takes questions after the rally. Someone asks him what distinguishes Josh from the other candidates in the race? “He absolutely believes in everything he says,” Flynn replies.