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11.11.10

The Budget-Hacking Maniac

Steve Stivers won his Ohio House seat by to calling for the elimination of all but four federal departments and privatizing the national parks. But does he believe his own platform?

There is no shortage of small-government conservatives in the House GOP class of 2010. But few can match the maniacal budget-cutting zeal of Steve Stivers, an Iraq veteran and former banking lobbyist from Ohio.

Little noticed outside of his Columbus-area district, Stivers courted local Tea Party groups with a far-reaching plan to tear down the federal government. In a publicly released survey issued by the Union County and Galloway 912 Project, Stivers wrote that "only four departments perform Constitutional roles (State, Defense, Justice, and Treasury) so you could eliminate the departments of Agriculture, Education, Interior, Housing and Urban Development, Transportation, Energy, and others and return to a constitutionally pure government." He singled out the Department of Interior as the juiciest target, saying that the entire country's National Parks could be privatized and sold either to conservationists or commercial interests.

The local Tea Partiers lapped it up. Stivers romped to victory in the GOP primary and then beat out a Democratic incumbent who had narrowly defeated him two years ago.

The only question is: does Stivers believe his own budget plan?

The number one issue listed on his website is protecting Social Security from privatization and fighting off attempts to raise the retirement age. The rest of his listed positions sound more anodyne than Ayn Rand.

In fact, Stivers was widely regarded as a moderate in Ohio until his latest race. His pro-choice leanings were blamed for derailing his first congressional run, a heartbreaking loss to Rep. Mary Jo Kilroy in 2008 that ended up being the final race called in the House that year. Stivers lost by just 2,311 votes while two third-party candidates on his right flank took up over 8% of the total.

Chastened by the loss, Stivers courted conservatives more aggressively this time around. After not filling out their questionnaire in 2008, he won a unique "preferred candidate" status from Ohio Right to Life—short of an endorsement, but enough to keep his right flank protected. He voted against an anti-gay marriage bill in 2004, telling the Columbus Dispatch at the time that "Ohio's not a radical state. It's a mainstream state." But this year, he told Tea Partiers that he feared allowing gays in the military could significantly hurt recruitment efforts. Like a number of moderate Republicans in 2010, he also abandoned his climate change stance, not only disavowing his previous support for some form of cap and trade legislation but writing in the 912 survey that he disagreed with the statement that "man-made global warming is a scientific fact."

"It sounds like he might have answered that survey in a bit of haste," Seitz said with a laugh.

All of which raises the question: Which Steve Stivers will show up when the new Congress convenes in January? And how many incoming members talked tough to win Tea Party support, but plan to soften their stance once they've taken the oath of office? After all, it worked for Scott Brown.

For those who've followed Stivers' career in the Ohio legislature, his re-emergence as a Tea Party radical is greeted with more than a little skepticism. State Sen. Bill Seitz, a Cincinnati Republican, said that Stivers was certainly a fiscal conservative—but added he saw little evidence in his legislative record to support the positions Stivers staked out in the 912 survey.

"It sounds like he might have answered that survey in a bit of haste," Seitz said with a laugh. "He is kind of a decisive guy, his enthusiasm sometimes gets the better of him, but I don't think he was pandering—I think he just answered it in a bit of haste."

That Stivers was often cited in the national press as a Tea Party candidate, including in the New York Times and Washington Post, underscores the vagueness of the label, which even the best-known Tea Party candidates like Brown and Marco Rubio have been uncomfortable embracing. Stiver has danced around whether or not he accepts the label, featuring Tea Party rallies in his campaign literature even as his spokesman declined to directly address the Times' description to reporters He also walked back some of his positions from the 912 survey after the primary, most notably his call to abolish the 17th amendment. According to the Columbus Dispatch, Stivers cited Brown's win in the Massachusetts race to replace the late Ted Kennedy as a sign that direct election of senators can work after all.

The Kilroy campaign, for its part, attacked Stivers as both a radical and a flip flopper, a difficult and ultimately unsuccessful combination. But her attacks on Stivers' past positions weren't lost on local Tea Party activists, who are not shy voicing their concerns as he prepares to represent the district in Congress.

"I don't think we organized early enough to get the perfect candidate out there," Lisa Cooper, leader of the Union County 912 Group that issued the survey, told The Daily Beast. "He's willing to work with us and we assured him we're willing to work to get him elected, but we'll be watching."

Steven Carr of the Columbus Tea Party warned in an e-mail that " should Mr. Stivers support any cap and trade legislation, he will find resistance and opposition by the regional liberty movement. However, I have not heard anything indicating he still supports it."

Bill Williams, an organizer for the Central Ohio 912 Group, said he believed Stivers' positions in previous elections were the product of his liberal-leaning district.

"We had many conversations with him and I believe his appearance of being a moderate in the past was based on him trying to go with the flow," he said. "I think he felt like that's what he needed to do to get elected."

The Daily Beast reached out to Stivers for an interview and, after multiple phone calls and emails, were told by an aide that he was busy first on National Guard duty and then a vacation in Aruba. When asked if a spokesman were available instead, the aide hung up. Another email requesting comment went unreturned.

Benjamin Sarlin is the Washington correspondent for The Daily Beast and edits the site's politics blog, Beltway Beast. He previously covered New York City politics for The New York Sun and has worked for talkingpointsmemo.com.