Like a troubled married couple, the Ohio Republican Party and the tea party are moving toward a final reckoning: whether to stay together or get a divorce.
Recent events make reconciliation appear remote. The tea party has rebelled against the Ohio GOP and its leader, Gov. John Kasich, and seems willing to split with the party, even if it means handing the 2014 election to Cuyahoga County Executive Ed FitzGerald, Kasich’s likely Democratic opponent.
Disgusted by a Republican establishment it views as too moderate and even liberal, tea party leaders are threatening to field and fund primary-election opponents against GOP legislators who stray from the tea party’s ideology.
Tom Zawistowski, leader of the Portage County tea party, is challenging Matt Borges, Kasich’s choice for state GOP chairman, and there even is talk about fielding a primary opponent against Kasich. State Treasurer Josh Mandel, who has been critical of Kasich, tops the tea party wish list, but he knows that a primary against Kasich would end his political career.
Increasingly, tea party leaders are talking about sinking the GOP if it strays too far from ultraconservative principles.
“The Republican Party hasn’t given us anything, and we don’t need ‘em and we will not come back if they don’t stay true to their values,” Zawistowski told public television’s Karen Kasler. “We will find another path, and if that results in Democrats winning elections, that’s (Republicans’) choice, not ours.”
Chris Littleton, founder of the tea party group Ohio Rising, told me last week there is discussion in “the libertarian community” about finding a candidate to challenge Kasich in the primary, or running an independent for governor in the general election.
“There’s a lot of talk out there like that,” Littleton said. “And if the goal for a lot of us is advancing good policy, well, that’s where that line of thinking comes from. I’m just telling you there is discussion out there about whether it is better to have an independent candidate or to run somebody against Kasich because people feel this has gotten to that point.”
Kasich might have helped galvanize the tea party after the 2012 presidential election, the fifth time in the past six presidential elections the GOP nominee has failed to win the popular vote. The governor’s sin: He dared to embrace an opportunity to improve Ohioans’ health by capitalizing on an opportunity in the federal Affordable Care Act.
The tea party viewed as unforgivable Kasich’s call to expand Medicaid to 275,000 adults without health-care coverage, with the entire cost paid by the federal government under Obamacare for three years, while saving Ohio taxpayers $400 million over the next two years.
“It’s financed with debt,” Littleton said. “When legislators saw this and voters saw this, there was fury.”
While Littleton and tea partiers cowed GOP lawmakers by threatening to take them out in primary elections if they supported the Medicaid expansion, powerful Republican-aligned lobbies backing Kasich — including the Ohio Chamber of Commerce, Ohio Hospital Association and Ohio Right to Life — offered no promises to protect House GOP incumbents, who stripped the expansion from Kasich’s budget.
The Ohio Republican Party made its own bed with the tea party by gerrymandering legislative districts so that moderate Republicans, indeed even merely conservative Republicans, have trouble winning. And Kasich’s own rational arguments to expand Medicaid were undermined by his complicity in the GOP crusade to demonize Obamacare during last year’s presidential race.
In the mid-1960s, Ohioan Ray C. Bliss, chairman of the National Republican Party, reached a crossroads similar to the one now before the Ohio GOP. Bliss concluded that he had to publicly decry the extremism of the rising John Birch Society to save the party.
Five decades later, the best way for the Ohio GOP to convince a reliably moderate general electorate to keep it on top in 2014 might be to seek a divorce from the tea party.
Joe Hallett is senior editor at The Dispatch. Contact him at jhallett@disp