COLUMBUS, Ohio — Nowhere is as much money being spent on a Senate race this year as in Ohio, where liberal Democrat Sherrod Brown is seeking a second term, his fate to some degree dependent on how well President Barack Obama does in the state's tossup presidential contest.
Outside interest groups are flooding the state with money. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, business and conservative groups are pouring money into the state in support of Republican challenger Josh Mandel; and labor, environmental and other liberal groups are spending on behalf of Brown.
Crossroads GPS, an independent group associated with Republican strategist Karl Rove, the Chamber and other Mandel backers have spent a combined $15 million against Brown, and plan to spend $6.7 million more before November.
Their goal is to return the Senate to GOP control after six years of being run by Democrats. They need a net pickup of four seats – three if Republican Mitt Romney wins the White House – and one of their juicier targets is Brown, who voted 100 percent with the AFL-CIO in 2010 but only 9 percent with the Chamber of Commerce.
Environmental, labor and political committees lining up against Mandel, the Republican state treasurer, have spent a combined $3.1 million. Even after outraising Mandel's campaign committee by $5 million, Brown has been significantly overspent.
Brandon Twyman, 22, a movie theater worker in Columbus, views all the ads as a waste of good TV time.
"People want to get their point across, I understand that, but at the same time you're wasting millions of dollars where millions of dollars could go somewhere else," he said. "To me, I don't think it's necessary."
Brown's surprise victory six years ago in this closely divided swing state made him the first Democrat the state had sent to the Senate since former astronaut John Glenn's retirement in 1999. A well-known Ohio figure, he's maintained a single-digit lead over Mandel in polls, but he's also struggling to break 50 percent and could be vulnerable if Obama falters badly in November.
His critics try to tie Brown with presidential priorities least popular in the closely divided state – including the health care overhaul and energy policies they paint as anti-coal. One of the most recent TV spots funded by Crossroads GPS asks: "Who's the biggest supporter of the Obama agenda in Ohio? It's Sherrod Brown."
Before Obama bounced back in the polls, Mandel called Brown a rubber stamp for the president's policies.
Brown defends his vote for Obama's health care overhaul and his support for the auto industry bailout. In a recent ad, he kicked the tire of an auto made of Ohio parts and noted that the bailout had saved more than 800,000 Ohio jobs. It turned out the tire he kicked wasn't made in the state.
Mandel, from the Democrat-heavy Cleveland area that tends to produce more moderate Republicans, has walked a fine line on the bailout – saying it had its effective elements but wasn't the savior of the industry.
A Marine veteran who served two tours in Iraq, Mandel unseated the Democratic state treasurer in 2010 in his first statewide election. Republicans quickly recruited him to challenge Brown, figuring the youthful fiscal conservative could tap into the rising anger directed at longtime politicians in Washington.
"I'm 34. I look like I'm 19," Mandel likes to say while campaigning.
He appeals to voters to put a fresh face in Congress and paints Brown, 59, as a "career politician" who's been in office too long.
"Sherrod Brown has been a politician since Richard Nixon was president," Mandel said in an interview. "If Sherrod Brown was the answer to our problems, they would have been solved long ago."
Brown, who began his political career in 1974 as the youngest state representative in Ohio history, counters that Mandel is a job-hopper – moving rapidly from city council, to state legislator, state treasurer and now Senate candidate.
"Let's put it this way: I've served in four offices in my many years in government. He is running for his fourth office in less than 10 years," Brown said. "It's just one job after another, after another, on his way to being something, and I take this job more seriously than that."
Even before the outside spending, the two Senate campaigns have raised a record-setting $25 million – $15 million for Brown and $10 million for Mandel. That's more than the entire amount spent in each of the state's last two Senate races.
Ohio Democratic Party Chairman Chris Redfern credits Crossroads and other conservative groups with propping up Mandel.
"The only reason Josh Mandel's campaign is alive today is because Karl Rove continues to give it CPR," Redfern said.
Mandel called that "hogwash." He notes that ads against him also are being funded by outsiders, including the Service Employees International Union and the League of Conservation Voters. Majority PAC, an independent group supporting Democrats, has spent about $1.1 million.
Mandel is working against a tide of criticism – for breaking a promise to serve his four years as treasurer, giving jobs and raises to political operatives, and failing to attend meetings of an influential board he chairs for more than a year.
His office released a report this month saying his cost-cutting and streamlining initiatives led to a $1.6 million surplus during the most recent fiscal year.
Seewer reported from Toledo, Ohio.