Ohio GOP Senate Debate Becomes Almost a Physical Showdown

(COLUMBUS, Ohio) — A near-physical altercation in the nasty U.S. Senate Republican primary in Ohio led to a demand Monday from some military veterans that a candidate apologize for his apparent insult, while the target of their request said he respects and honors the military, but stands by his statement.

The heated argument came during a Friday night debate between five candidates for the GOP nomination to replace incumbent Republican Senator Rob Portman. Democrats view the open seat as one of their best chances of overturning a seat nationwide.

The debate became heated almost as soon as it began when former state treasurer Josh Mandel attacked investment banker Mike Gibbons’ business dealings in his opening remarks. Soon, the two found themselves face to face on the debate stage, yelling at each other as the moderator tried to keep their argument from escalating further.

Mandel accused Gibbons of “making millions” on the stock of a Chinese company and Gibbons dismissively accused Mandel, who served in the US Marines, of not understanding how investments work.

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

“Two tours of Iraq,” Mandel shouted after getting up from his seat. “Don’t tell me I haven’t worked!

“Stand back, mate, or you’re gonna end -” Gibbons told him, not finishing his sentence. “You’re dealing with the wrong guy.”

“No, you’re dealing with the wrong person,” Mandel shot back. “You watch what happens.”

Candidate JD Vance, venture capitalist and author of “Hillbilly Elegy,” didn’t seem impressed.

“Sit down. Come on,” he said, sitting in a row with the remaining candidates. “That’s ridiculous.”

Vance, who is also a military veteran, later called Mandel “shameful” for using the Marine Corps as “political football,” drawing loud applause from the crowd. “What a joke,” he said.

But 15 veterans supporting Mandel wrote an open letter on Monday saying they were “disgusted beyond belief” by Gibbons’ comments.

“Gibbons owes Josh and all veterans and those currently serving an apology, (for) implying that ‘WE’ who served our country honorably and faithfully, never earned our way working in the private sector,” they wrote. “We all volunteered to serve our country away from our families, putting our lives on the line, so people like Mike Gibbons could make millions.”

Gibbons, meanwhile, said Mandel initiated the physical assault and made “several false and mean-spirited comments in an attempt to smear the new favorite.”

“Josh Mandel is unhinged, unfit and restless – because he’s losing,” Gibbons campaign spokeswoman Samantha Cotten said. “He’s only a professional at one thing: running for office.”

On the radio show “Always Right With Bob Frantz” broadcast in Cleveland on Monday, Gibbons noted that his son and daughter-in-law are both active pilots in the United States Navy.

Gibbons told Frantz that whenever he questions Mandel’s credentials in economics, “his answer is always ‘I’m a Marine’.”

“My son risks his life every day for this country; Josh risked his life for our country. I have absolutely nothing but respect for that, but it’s not the answer to all the problems,” he said. “You should have some expertise in something that could apply to this country’s economic problem, because we have a huge one.”

Even before the Republicans’ event, the Ohio Democratic Party predicted it would be “the first of what will be a brutal debate season.” Democrats called the GOP race a “cavalcade of clowns.”

The tone was much more civil on Monday evening when the candidates met for a new debate. Mandel even complimented Gibbons’ response at one point when the pair declined to say whether, if elected, they would support Mitch McConnell as leader of the Republican Senate.

But Friday’s showdown was front and center nonetheless. Asked to explain what happened, Mandel insisted that “the time has come for the fighters” and pledged never to back down from a fight.

Gibbons said the two simply had a disagreement.

“I have nothing but respect for anyone who serves in the military. What I meant was that Josh has never been in the private sector. The military is not the private sector” , did he declare.

The other candidates, meanwhile, tried to use the spat to their advantage.

Vance, who had accused Mandel and Gibbons of “mocking themselves with their bogus tough-guy antics” in a statement, again criticized Mandel for repeatedly invoking his services.

“I hate when people use the Marine Corps as a political football,” he said.

And former Ohio Republican Party chairwoman Jane Timken, another running mate, called the performance an “embarrassment.”

“Josh Mandel and Mike Gibbons acted like children,” she said, “and if I had been their mother, I would have punished them.”

The first Democratic debate, involving U.S. Representative Tim Ryan, former consumer protection attorney Morgan Harper and community activist Traci Johnson, is scheduled for March 23.


Associated Press reporter Jill Colvin contributed reporting from New York.

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