COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — An almost physical altercation in the tedious Republican primary for the US Senate in Ohio led Monday to a demand from some military veterans that a candidate apologize for saying a rival who has done two tours in Iraq never has served in the private sector and knew nothing about business.
The heated argument came during a debate Friday with five candidates running for the GOP nomination to replace outgoing Republican Senator Rob Portman. Democrats view the open seat as one of their best chances of flipping a seat nationally.
The debate became intense as soon as it began when former state treasurer Josh Mandel attacked investment banker Mike Gibbons’ business dealings in his opening address. 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” off stock in a Chinese company, and Gibbons contemptuously accused Mandel of not understanding how investments work.
“You’ve never been in the private sector in all your life,” Gibbons said. “You don’t know squats.”
“Two tours in Iraq,” Mandel shouted as he rose from his chair. “Don’t tell me I didn’t work!”
“Go back, friend, or you’ll end up…,” Gibbons said, without finishing the sentence. “You’re dealing with the wrong guy.”
“No, you’re dealing with the wrong man,” Mandel objected. “You watch what happens.”
Candidate JD Vance, a venture capitalist and author of “Hillbilly Elegy,” seemed unimpressed.
“Sit down. Come on,” he said, lining up with the other candidates. “This is ridiculous.”
Vance, who is also a military veteran, later called Mandel “disgraceful” for using the Marine Corps as “political football” and received loud applause from the crowd. “What a joke,” he said.
But 15 veterans who support Mandel wrote an open letter Monday saying they were “incredibly disgusted” by Gibbons’ comments.
“Gibbons owes Josh and all veterans and those currently employed an apology, (for) implying that ‘WE’ who have served our country honorably and faithfully have never earned our way working in the private sector,” the wrote they. “We all volunteered to serve our country away from our families, endangering our lives so that people like Mike Gibbons could make millions.”
Gibbons said Mandel started the physical assault and made “several false, petty comments in an effort to smear the new frontrunner.”
“Josh Mandel is unhinged, unfit and flailing – because he’s losing,” said Samantha Cotten, Gibbons campaign spokesman. “He’s only a professional at one thing: running for office.”
Gibbons, in a separate statement Monday, complained about the death of Gunnery Sgt. James W. Speedy, 30, of Cambridge, Ohio, and the three other US servicemen were killed in a plane crash in Norway this weekend.
“This loss comes close to home for me and many Ohio residents, and reminds us all of how valued and brave each member of our armed forces is,” Gibbons said.
Vance called Mandel and Gibbons “clown shows” in a statement after the debate.
“While others ridiculed themselves with their fake tough antics, I focused on connecting with voters,” he said, “honing the real problems Ohioans face and providing real solutions that affect the lives of working and American middle classes. ”
Former Ohio Republican Party chairman Jane Timken, another GOP candidate in the Senate race, said she would lead with “grit and grace” if elected.
“There are a lot of show horses in this race, but I’m the workhorse,” she said in a statement.
Even before the Republicans’ event, the Ohio Democratic Party had predicted it would be “the first of what will be a brutal debate season.” The Democrats called the GOP race a “clown procession.”
The first Democratic debate, involving U.S. Representative Tim Ryan, former consumer protection attorney Morgan Harper and community activist Traci Johnson, is scheduled for Monday.
Associated Press reporter Jill Colvin contributed to this report from New York.