Tea Party on the Run

Sex-crime charges have derailed two fringe conservatives in Ohio, making it one of the few states where a GOP moderate is trouncing the far right.

David Kohl

The way the political winds are blowing nationally, Ohio Senate candidate Rob Portman should be in serious trouble right now.

He's an establishment-backed moderate Republican in an anti-establishment year, a former Bush official who helped craft the deficit-exploding budgets that Tea Partiers consider the GOP's original sin, and an ex-congressman with a reputation for reaching across the aisle.

“He’s the high priest of the economic theocracy,” says Tea Partier Bonnie Oleksa of Portman.

Such sins have cost plenty of politicians their jobs this year—Mike Castle, Lisa Murkowski, and Bob Bennett, to name a few.

Like those candidates, Portman faces a challenge from the right. Unlike them, he’s cruised through his party’s primary, is riding high in the polls against his Democratic rival—while the Tea Party types running against him have crashed and burned in the wake of serious sex-crime charges against multiple candidates.

That frustrates conservatives who see Portman as too liberal to deserve a victory.

"Portman’s just a well-oiled political machine," said Matt Naugle, a blogger for Right Ohio who has been critical of the candidate’s centrist leanings. "He doesn't seem to be appealing to the core conservative base. His platform leaves much to be desired for Tea Partiers in general."

Portman is one of a few moderate Republicans who is running for statewide office, staying true to his colors—and on track to win. Several others—Mark Kirk in Illinois, John McCain in Arizona, and New Hampshire’s Kelly Ayotte—have all had to tack much harder to the right to survive.

Portman owes his anomalous success to a mix of skill, money—and dumb luck. In the primary, he drew a challenge from Tom Ganley, an Ohio auto-dealer looking to attack from the right. Ganley shared plenty in common with underdogs like Rick Scott in Florida and Carl Paladino in New York—both of whom won surprise victories in Republican primaries this year. Like those two, Ganley aggressively sought Tea Party support and had millions of dollars to draw on from his own personal fortune.

But Portman's early fundraising, buoyed by his powerful political connections, made him an intimidating match and Ganley pulled out to take on Democrat Betty Sue Sutton in Congress instead, committing about $3.5 million of his own money to the race. That campaign turned ugly this month when a 39-year-old Cleveland woman sued him for sexual assault, saying that Ganley, whom she met at a Tea Party rally, tried to force himself on her after describing lewd sex acts. Ganley's lawyer claims the suit is extortion.

Ganley’s exit from the Senate race freed Portman to amass tons of campaign cash and tack to the center while his Democratic counterparts fought through a tough primary campaign of their own. Tea Partiers complained to the press that they were being ignored by Portman, though he made some visits to local groups, and he enraged many of them even further by supporting the administration's Cash for Clunkers program.

That doesn’t mean he’s home free. At least some Tea Party activists are openly campaigning against Portman in the general election.

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"He's a career politician," said Bonnie Oleksa, an organizer for the Mansfield North Central Ohio Tea Party. "He's the high priest of the economic theocracy."

Oleksa recently circulated an email highlighting Portman’s support for free-trade deals, anathema to many Tea Party groups, as well as his record on immigration.

But with a more than 2-to-1 cash advantage, Portman can overwhelm opposition in an air war. He’s getting a major boost in funding media ad buys from one of the Tea Party’s most despised Republicans, Karl Rove, who clashed with conservatives over his criticism of Christine O’Donnell after her primary win. Rove’s American Crossroads group has invested more than $800,000 in the race.

As a result, the conservative opposition to Portman is pretty weak tea.

Interviews with a number of Tea Party leaders suggested many conservatives are resigned to voting for him if the alternative is a Democrat. A recent Dayton Daily News/Ohio Newspaper poll showed 94 percent of Ohio Tea Partiers planning to cast their ballot for Portman.

“Portman is not a perfect candidate,” Ohio Tea Party Patriots coordinator Scott Boston said. ”In most instances, however, he is right on the issues and he is much closer to Tea Party values than is [Democratic rival] Lee Fisher.”

Tea Partiers looking for a third-party candidate to cast a protest vote are left with slim pickings. One candidate is running as a socialist. There’s independent candidate Michael Pryce, a physician who left the Republican Party because he was afraid they were going to cut doctors' Medicare fees. And he's not even sure he wants their backing. "I haven't fully declared myself as a Tea Party candidate, but when you run for office you take whatever you can get," he told The Daily Beast.

Then there's Eric Deaton of the Constitution Party, a states' rights candidate who wants to repeal the 17th Amendment that allows for direct election of senators. Deaton is a more natural fit for far-right protest votes and has acquired the backing of some local Tea Party groups, including Oleksa's.

But his campaign is making headlines for all the wrong reasons. He was indicted in late August for carrying on a sexual relationship with a girl between the ages of 13 and 15 that he allegedly met at church. He told the Dayton Daily News the charges are politically motivated. The three candidates combined barely register in polling on the race.

Portman has benefited from another lucky break: a Republican Tea Partiers hate even more. Former Republican senator and current attorney general candidate Mike DeWine is soaking up far more attention from conservatives over his moderate record in the Senate, where he served two terms until being voted out in 2006. A large coalition of Tea Party groups announced last week that they were backing Constitution Party candidate Robert Owens in the race against DeWine, who was a member of the bipartisan "Gang of 14" that negotiated over judicial nominees in 2005 and once received an "F" rating from the NRA.

“For those conservative activists looking for a Republican to dislike, they have a better target in Mike DeWine,” Herb Asher, a professor of political science at Ohio State University, told The Daily Beast. “They’ve never forgiven him.”

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.