(COLUMBUS, Ohio) — A near-physical altercation in the nasty Republican U.S. Senate primary in Ohio on Monday led to a demand from some military veterans that a candidate apologize for his apparent offense while the target of their request said he respects and honor the military stands by his statement.
The heated argument came during a Friday night debate between five candidates running for the GOP nomination to replace retiring Republican Senator Rob Portman. Democrats view the open seat as one of their best chances to flip a seat nationally.
The debate intensified almost immediately after it began, when former Treasurer Josh Mandel attacked investment banker Mike Gibbons’ dealings in his opening statement. Soon the two were facing each other on the debate stage, yelling at each other while the moderator tried to keep their argument from escalating further.
Mandel accused Gibbons of “making millions” in shares in a Chinese company, and Gibbons dismissively accused Mandel, who served in the US Marines, of not understanding how investing works.
“You’ve never worked in the private sector in your life,” Gibbons accused. “You don’t know how to squat.”
“Two sorties in Iraq,” Mandel shouted after rising from his seat. “Don’t tell me I haven’t worked!”
“Hold back, mate, or you’ll end up-” Gibbons said without finishing the sentence. “You’re dealing with the wrong person.”
“No, you’re dealing with the wrong person,” Mandel replied. “You see what happens.”
Contestant JD Vance, venture capitalist and author of Hillbilly Elegy, was unimpressed.
“Sit down. Come on,” he said, sitting in line with the rest of the candidates. “That’s ridiculous.”
Vance, who is also a military veteran, later called Mandel “disgraceful” for using the Marine Corps as “political football,” and drew loud applause from the crowd. “What a joke,” he said.
But 15 veterans who supported Mandel wrote an open letter Monday saying they were “incredibly disgusted” by Gibbon’s comments.
“Gibbons owes an apology to Josh and to all veterans and those currently on duty for implying that ‘WE’ who have served our country honorably and faithfully never deserved our way in the private sector,” they wrote. “We all volunteered to serve our country far from our families and risk our lives so that people like Mike Gibbons could make millions.”
Gibbons, meanwhile, said Mandel initiated the physical aggression and “made several false, petty comments to slander the new frontrunner.”
“Josh Mandel is out of joint, unfit and thrashing about because he’s losing,” said Samantha Cotten, spokeswoman for the Gibbons campaign. “He’s just a pro at one thing: running for office.”
Speaking on Monday’s Cleveland radio show “Always Right With Bob Frantz,” Gibbons noted that his son and daughter-in-law are both active-duty US Navy pilots.
Gibbons told Frantz that whenever he questions Mandel’s credentials on economics, “his answer is always, ‘I’m a Marine.'”
“My son risks his life for this country every day; Josh risked his life for our country. I have absolutely nothing but respect for it, but it’s not the answer to every single problem,” he said. “They should have some expertise in something that might relate to the economic problem in this country because we have a huge one.”
Even before the Republican event, the Ohio Democratic Party had predicted it would be “the first in a brutal debate season.” Democrats called the GOP race a “cavalcade of clowns.”
The tone was much more bourgeois when the candidates met again for a debate on Monday evening. Mandel even praised Gibbon’s response at one point, when both men declined to say whether, if elected, they would support Mitch McConnell as Republican Senate leader.
But the confrontation on Friday was still in the foreground. When asked what happened, Mandel insisted “now is the time for fighters,” and vowed never to shy away from a fight.
Gibbons said the two simply had a disagreement.
“I have nothing but respect for anyone who serves in the military. My point was that Josh has never been in the private sector. The military is not the private sector,” he said.
Meanwhile, the other candidates tried to use the spit to their advantage.
Vance, who in a statement accused Mandel and Gibbons of “making a laughing stock of themselves with their fake tick-man antics,” again criticized Mandel for repeatedly invoking his service.
“I hate when people use the Marine Corps as a political toy,” he said.
And former Ohio Republican Party leader Jane Timken, another candidate in the running, called the performance an “embarrassment.”
“Josh Mandel and Mike Gibbons acted like kids,” she said, “and if I had been their mother, I would have grounded them.”
The first Democratic debate, which will feature US Rep. Tim Ryan, former consumer advocate Morgan Harper and community activist Traci Johnson, is scheduled for March 23.
Associated Press reporter Jill Colvin contributed to this report from New York.
More must-read stories from TIME
https://time.com/6159303/ohio-gop-senate-debate/ Ohio GOP Senate Debate Turns Almost Into Physical Confrontation