Mike Gibbons, left, and Josh Mandel, right, have a heated exchange. Photo by Nick Evans, OCJ.

BY: NICK EVANS – Ohio Capital Journal

The leading candidates for the Ohio Republican U.S. Senate nomination met in Gahanna Friday. Two of them nearly came to blows.

The candidate forum hosted by FreedomWorks didn’t make it through opening statements before former Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel began attacking investment banker Mike Gibbons. The other candidates, state Sen. Matt Dolan, former GOP chair Jane Timken and author J.D. Vance did their best to avoid the fracas.

The substance

The moderator took candidates through foreign policy, big tech “censorship” (twice), critical race theory, the opioid crisis and their feelings on Donald Trump’s presidency. The candidates largely agreed on support for Ukraine, but complained about how Congress approved a nearly $14 billion support package.

“You can not just put, in the dark of night, all of these spending provisions into a bill, plop it on peoples’ desks and say you’ve got 12 hours to vote for this,” Dolan argued.

Vance has argued against engaging the Ukraine war — raising eyebrows by saying he didn’t really care what happened. His position hasn’t really changed, but the framing has. Instead of emphasizing neglect, he uses the conflict to criticize establishment Republicans who couldn’t fund Trump’s border wall and to warn against American adventurism.

“The only thing that will salvage Joe Biden’s presidency is if a bunch of stupid, weak-willed Republicans let this guy bumble us into a war that we have no business fighting,” he told the crowd.

Biden has, from the outset and repeatedly since, insisted that American troops will not be sent to fight in Ukraine.

Timken decried big tech as, “the weapon of the cancel culture and the woke left.”

But beneath the red meat rhetoric, their arguments weren’t that dissimilar from what many on the left have demanded. Break them up, don’t let companies profit on your data, reform or eliminate section 230, the candidates argued.

“There is no reason that Facebook or Meta as it’s called should be as powerful as it is, and also, meddling in our elections,” Timken said.

The confrontation

 From left, moderator Brandon Boxer, Matt Dolan, Mike Gibbons, Josh Mandel, Jane Timken and J.D. Vance. Photo by Nick Evans, OCJ.

Almost immediately, it became clear that Mandel would use the forum to attack Gibbons. In his opening statements Mandel argued the fight for the “soul of the Republican Party” was even more important than the fight against Democrats.

“Here’s the fork in the roads,” he argued. “Down one path goes these squishy, RINO Republicans many of whom have been pro-China over the years.”

He rattled off the list of excommunicated Republicans — Liz Cheney, Adam Kinzinger, Mitt Romney — before turning to Gibbons.

“(He) had all these companies here in America and made money selling them to China,” Mandel said. “That is not the path that we should be taking in this country.”

Mandel repeatedly steered his answers into Gibbons’ investment holdings criticizing him for shipping Ohio jobs overseas, selling companies “to China,” or simply holding stock in Chinese firms. By the third time he tried it, Mandel’s tactic was met with sustained boos from the crowd.

“Again Josh is showing his ignorance,” Gibbons said after one critique tied to Lordstown Motors. He then turned to the former state treasurer and asked, “Josh, do you know anything about economics or finance at all?”

Gibbons also made a dig he uses regularly on the campaign trail — Mandel has “zero” experience in the private sector.

That’s incorrect. Mandel has served on corporate boards and advised payday lenders since leaving office in 2019. He also served in the military.

The confrontation between the two became more heated, with Mandel jumping out of his seat after Gibbons told Mandel, “You might not understand this,” about a stock trade.

“You’ve never been in the private sector in your entire life,” Gibbons insisted. “You don’t know squat.”

“Two tours in Iraq,” Mandel growled, “don’t tell me I haven’t worked.”

The other candidates traded uncomfortable laughs as the moderator broke up the incident while the crowd booed.

“You’re dealing with the wrong guy,” Mandel said returning to his seat. “You watch what happens, p—-, you watch what happens.”

The incident is in keeping with Mandel’s increasingly belligerent campaign. He’s taken to ending campaign ads with the tag line “send in the marine.”

A few minutes after the confrontation, Vance, who is also a marine corps veteran, chastised Mandel.

“I think the way you use the U.S. Marine Corps, Josh, is disgraceful,” Vance said. “It’s not a political football for you to toss around.”

After the event ended, Gibbons waded out into the crowd to shake hands with attendees, but refused to talk to reporters. Instead, his campaign sent out a press release after the fact calling Mandel “unhinged, unfit and flailing.”

Mandel handled things differently.

When the forum concluded, he shook hands with his opponents and rushed off stage. He weaved through attendees and made a beeline for the service kitchen.

In a straw poll, Mandel got just 4.6%, dead last among the candidates on stage. The winner was J.D. Vance with about 43% of votes.

Speaking after the event Vance called Mandel’s conduct “embarrassing,” but he didn’t want to belabor it, instead focusing on how the crowd had reacted to the points he made during the evening. But asked about Mandel’s exit, Vance smiled and paused.

“Well,” he said. “If I’d had his debate I may have run for the kitchen, too.”

NICK EVANS has spent the past seven years reporting for NPR member stations in Florida and Ohio. He got his start in Tallahassee, covering issues like redistricting, same sex marriage and medical marijuana. Since arriving in Columbus in 2018, he has covered everything from city council to football. His work on Ohio politics and local policing have been featured numerous times on NPR.

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