CLEVELAND — Josh Mandel, a Republican candidate for the Senate in Ohio, is waging an unadulterated campaign to pull his party further to the right, in part by trashing the state's Republican governor.
A day after governors in Mississippi and Texas lifted mask mandates and other guidelines to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, Mandel on Wednesday called on Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine to do the same.
"I think Mike DeWine is a squishy establishment politician who went along with the peer pressure and the groupthink of liberal media and other squishy governors around the country when he should have been a leader," Mandel, a former two-term state treasurer, said in an interview.
Mandel's remarks escalate his bid to position himself as the Republican most in sync with former President Donald Trump in the race to succeed GOP Sen. Rob Portman, who will not seek another term next year.
Mandel has amplified the lie that the election was stolen from Trump. He has relentlessly attacked an opponent, former Ohio Republican Party Chair Jane Timken, for the nice things she said about a Republican House member who voted to impeach Trump. And since he appeared last week at the CPAC conference for conservative activists in Florida, Mandel has branded DeWine — whose career in Republican politics goes back to 1977, when Mandel was born — with words like "squishy" and "RINO," meaning Republican In Name Only.
In another sign that he wants to carve out his own far-right lane in a primary campaign that could soon be crowded with other pro-Trump conservatives, Mandel asserted Wednesday that masks are not effective against the coronavirus.
"There's no science or math that shows that it's been helpful," he said, overlooking data and guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other experts that confirms that properly covering your mouth and nose helps prevent the spread of viral particles.
"No," Mandel replied when asked whether he would continue wearing a mask in public if DeWine lifts the mandate. "We need to stop the mask mandates immediately. And I will stop wearing a mask. I have the freedom to make decisions based on what's best for me and my family. And this has gone way overboard."
A spokesperson for DeWine, Dan Tierney, said it was too soon to ease off all mandates and restrictions. He did not respond to Mandel's attacks on DeWine.
"We still have a pandemic. We still do not have herd immunity," Tierney said. "The good news is we're getting an increased supply" of vaccines, and "there is light at the end of the tunnel."
Mandel's latest moves illustrate how he is trying to set a Trumpian tone and rules of engagement in the early stages of the primary campaign. Timken, the former state party chair, has been a close Trump ally, but early efforts on her behalf to secure Trump's endorsement have been unsuccessful. After days of pressure from Mandel on Twitter, Timken this week backtracked from her praise for Rep. Anthony Gonzalez of Ohio, one of 10 Republicans who voted to impeach Trump in January.
Timken also has been an ally of DeWine's. As state party chair, she discouraged calls for a primary challenge that grew out of conservative frustrations — which Mandel is using his Senate campaign's bully pulpit to air — with DeWine's continued insistence on masks and other social distancing guidelines.
DeWine's relatively cautious approach to the pandemic, especially compared with the approaches of other Republican governors, earned him bipartisan praise early in the crisis. A Baldwin Wallace University poll of likely voters last fall found that nearly 72 percent of respondents approved of how DeWine was handling the pandemic.
"Ohio has led the way and done better than many other states in tackling the pandemic," Timken said in an emailed statement, opening with implicit praise for DeWine. "With declining Covid-19 cases, the increasing availability of vaccines and the coming arrival of spring, now is the time to fully reopen Ohio's economy and ensure every child can attend school in-person."
Timken, unlike Mandel, said she "will continue to wear a mask personally when I think it's appropriate, but that is a personal choice that every Ohioan should have the liberty to make, which is why we must also end government mask mandates."
Another major factor in deciphering Mandel's anti-DeWine message is whom he might face in the general election if he wins the nomination.
Dr. Amy Acton, who was DeWine's first health director and became a household name in Ohio last year during televised briefings about the state's pandemic response, is considering running as a Democrat. Every time Mandel criticizes DeWine, he blasts Acton by name, too. Mandel said Wednesday that he would "cherish" the opportunity to run against her because "she was a complete failure."
A spokesperson for Acton declined to comment Wednesday.