Ohio Republican Party Goes to War With Itself, Leaving 2016 in Doubt

Tea Partiers threatening to break away from the state GOP machinery. David Freedlander reports.


So goes Ohio, so goes the nation.

At least that’s how every presidential election has gone since 1964, as both Democrats and Republicans have fiercely fought over this purplest of the purple states before it sided with the eventual winner.

But as Republicans look to take back the White House in 2016, the Buckeye State does not appear to be cooperating. Instead, Republicans in Ohio have slipped into an all out civil war, with a Tea Party faction threatening to break away from the GOP machinery.

Their complaints? A Republican senator, Rob Portman, after campaigning last year on his support for marriage being defined as between a man and a woman, abruptly reversed course once his son came out as gay. A Republican governor, John Kasich, pushed to expand Medicaid under Obamacare, despite remaining a vocal supporter of repealing the entire bill. An executive director of the Ohio Republican Party, elected after a bitter intraparty dispute, once worked as a lobbyist for Equality Ohio, a gay-rights group formed after the state voted to outlaw same-sex marriage. And never mind that House Speaker John Boehner, long a scourge of Tea Party types, is also an Ohioan, representing a southwest slice of the state.

“Disappointment would be an appropriate word about where the Tea Party is today,” said Seth Morgan, a former state lawmaker who now works for Americans for Prosperity-Ohio, a Koch brothers–backed group that has helped bankroll numerous Tea Party challenges. “People didn’t get involved to elect individual candidates. They wanted to save the country, and they still do, but there is a high level of frustration here.”

To hear Tea Partiers tell it, the trouble reached a crescendo in the spring, when Gov. Kasich installed an ally, Matt Borges, as executive director of the Ohio GOP over Tom Zawistowski, a local Tea Party leader. “The leaders of the Republican Party in Ohio have chosen to separate themselves and the party from the wishes and values of their support base,” Zawistowski said in a statement signed by more than 70 conservative leaders from around the state. “With this letter we put the party bosses on notice that we reject their betrayal of the party platform and our conservative values. We will not support them going forward but will instead support those who are true to our cause.”

That was after Kasich had worked to expand Medicaid coverage, a key component of the Affordable Care Act. Kasich rode into office on a wave of conservative anger at the bill, attending a Tea Party rally the night before the election and proclaiming at the start of his campaign, “I was in the Tea Party before there was a Tea Party.” His move on the Medicaid expansion could save the state $4 billion by 2025 and expand coverage for 300,000 Ohioans. It also has brought him warm profiles in such outlets as The Wall Street Journal, which suggested that Kasich’s approach could “rebrand the Republican Party by refashioning what it means to be a conservative in the 21st century.” But for conservatives, the expansion has brought nothing but anger, not least because Kasich has defended his actions in biblical, moralistic terms, describing the move as something demanded by his Christian faith.

“In our Bible, compassion means the money comes from you,” Zawistowski told The Daily Beast. “Medicaid is for single women with children and for the elderly, for people who can’t work. What they are calling Medicaid expansion is health insurance for people who don’t want to work. You are not expanding Medicaid. This is a whole new program and it is with borrowed money.”

Among Kasich’s other offenses, according to Tea Partiers, are not going far enough to push for charter schools and vouchers, increasing spending, and taxing the energy industry for fracking on Ohio farmland. Kasich has framed that issue, one conservative blogger wrote, “as if the natural resources in citizens’ property belong to the State of Ohio.”

“He tried to do a severance tax on the energy industry,” said Zawistowski. “You know why? He said it was because they could afford it. That sounds very liberal to me, when you decide what someone else can afford. And he made it sound as if those lines somehow belong to the state of Ohio and we are owed some of the money they generate. Well, guess what, governor—those are private lines, and the people who own the land they are on owe you nothing, comrade.”

Tea Partiers say they won’t support Kasich’s reelection effort in 2014 as a result of his recent moves and that they are throwing their support behind Charlie Earl, a libertarian, if no primary challenger emerges.

“John Kasich is going to lose in 2014,” Zawistowski said. “We don’t care who else wins.”

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As for Portman, his reversal of his marriage stance was cheered as landmark decision by same-sex marriage advocates. If a Republican senator can change his mind, especially one who was on the short list to be Mitt Romney’s running mate, then the debate on the issue will soon be over, they say. But to conservatives in Ohio, Portman’s switch was a flip-flop of the worst order, especially as Portman boasted of his opposition to same-sex marriage when he ran in 2010.

“This was a very developed policy position,” said Morgan. “It’s not like we are talking about the drone debate, where it is a developing issue. How can he just change his mind on this position because of his son, when he spent years courting social conservatives?”

As the Tea Party roils Republican politics, Ohio stands a little bit apart. Not only is it the quintessential swing state, but it boasts both a highly organized Republican Party and a highly organized Tea Party, one that is organized under a statewide umbrella group and holds frequent coalition meetings. In 2011, Ohio voters resoundingly defeated a Kasich-backed bill that would have limited the collective-bargaining rights of public-sector unions, but they also approved a bill that would forbid the federal government from forcing Ohioans to participate in the health-care system.

In an interview, Borges, the Kasich-backed GOP executive director, said the criticism mostly amounted to noise.

“It is the same thing you hear in Wisconsin, the same thing in Michigan and Illinois. It is the same thing happening all over,” he said. “There was some effort that was circulated [by Tea Partiers] to gain control of the party, and I think they ended up with six votes. We have plenty of Tea Partiers on the state committee, and many of them supported me.”

Republicans, Borges said, have to be united if they want to keep the Democrats from taking over and doing further damage to the economy.

“Our work isn’t done,” he said. “We have to be vigilant, and that to me is the most important reason that we have to be united, because if we are divided our government will go back to the Democrats, who we agree with about zero percent of the time.”

Neil Clark, a Republican lobbyist in Columbus, echoed Borges, noting that in a state so divided, Kasich and others were right to ignore the extremes of the party.

“I guess for some people in Ohio, unless you are a card-carrying Nazi you can’t be a Republican,” he said. And he pointed to polls that showed more and more Ohioans support Kasich, who is now a legitimate contender in 2016.

“He tells is like it is. He is no-nonsense, in your face. He is like a thin Chris Christie.”