COLUMBUS, Ohio — As early primary voting began in the Midwestern battleground state of Ohio on Tuesday, social media users questioned the authenticity of a photo used in a campaign ad by U.S. Senate candidate Josh Mandel. In the ad, the former state treasurer invokes Martin Luther King Jr. and his own time as a Marine to vocally oppose critical race theory.
The 30-second advertisement promoting his run in the state’s heated Republican primary features photographs of Mandel in Iraq, including one of him standing in the middle of a group of five Black soldiers set to a voiceover saying, “I didn’t do two tours in Anbar province, fighting alongside Marines of every color, to come home and be called a racist. There’s nothing racist about stopping critical race theory and loving America.”
Social media users shared the photo falsely suggesting the image was digitally altered to insert Mandel’s face over the body of a Black soldier.
Here’s a closer look at the claim that has spread widely online.
CLAIM: Mandel inserted his face over that of a Black soldier in an image used in a campaign advertisement.
THE FACTS: A campaign spokesperson and a representative for the agency that created the advertisement said the image of Mandel with the soldiers is authentic. Both representatives denied that the photograph had been altered to superimpose Mandel’s face onto someone else’s body.
A Twitter user shared a screenshot of the frame in which the candidate’s hands appeared visibly darker than the rest of his body, writing: “To ‘prove’ he isn’t racist — Ohio U.S. Senate candidate @JoshMandelOhio put a photo of himself standing with black soldiers in his latest campaign ad. Problem is he forgot to Photoshop the hands that clearly show he put his face on the body of a black soldier.”
Campaign spokesperson Scott Guthrie provided a photograph of the original image to The Associated Press which shows the tone of Mandel’s hands is lighter and more evenly matches his face. There are no other indications, such as blurs, distortions or inconsistencies in the background, on either version of the photo that would demonstrate the image was manipulated to add new elements.
“It’s obvious that Josh’s head was not photoshopped,” Guthrie wrote in an email, referencing the original photo.
Fred Davis, CEO of the Hollywood-based agency that created the video, said no outside images were added to the photo and no skin features were intentionally darkened.
Davis said a “vignette” effect — which darkens the corners of images — was added to make white text at the bottom stand out, which may have also affected Mandel's hands in the lower part of the frame.
“Nothing photoshopped on that ad,” Davis said. “What made the bottom of the whole picture darker was the editor darkened just that little bit to make sure that joshmandel.com showed up, which was white type on camouflage. It didn't show up too well. Nothing else was done to it.”
The advertisement drew broader criticism Tuesday for using civil rights movement imagery and the legacy of Martin Luther King to support Mandel's message that opposing critical race theory is not racist.
The opening scene of the ad was filmed against the backdrop of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, the site of the “Bloody Sunday” voting rights march, and in the video, Mandel walks toward the camera saying, “Martin Luther King marched right here so skin color wouldn’t matter.”
Critical race theory is a way of thinking about America’s history through the lens of racism. There is little to no evidence that the theory itself is being taught to K-12 public school students, though some ideas central to it have been, including the lingering consequences of slavery. Still, some opponents argue against teaching certain concepts to schoolchildren, such as white privilege, systemic inequality and inherent bias.
King’s daughter, Bernice King, responded to the advertisement on Twitter, saying it was “in opposition to nonviolence and to much of what my father taught," adding: “I encourage you to study my father/nonviolence in full.”
Candidates running opposite Mandel have accused him of racism in the past. After debating Mandel in February, Democratic U.S. Sen. candidate Morgan Harper, who is Black, tweeted a fundraising video describing him as displaying “what we’ve come to expect: racism, sexism, xenophobia." During another debate, Mandel described Black Lives Matter protesters as “thugs.”
Mandel is running in one of the most contentious and expensive Senate primaries in the nation this cycle, and one Democrats are eyeing as a possible pickup.
Mandel faces six other Republicans in Ohio’s May 3 primary, all seeking to succeed Republican Sen. Rob Portman, who announced his retirement last year. On Monday, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz endorsed Mandel, offering a potentially critical campaign boost just as early voting began.
Associated Press writer Julie Carr Smyth in Columbus, Ohio, contributed to this report.