By Rick Armon and Stephanie Warsmith
Beacon Journal staff writers
Frank LaRose remembers hearing the doubters early on.
Don't worry if you lose, they said, there's always the next election.
The lack of faith was understandable. The 31-year-old Republican — who had never run for elected office, let alone held office — had set a lofty goal last year.
He wanted to succeed state Sen. Kevin Coughlin, who couldn't run again because of term limits.
''When we first started this, Lauren [his wife] and I were the only people who really knew we were going to get it done because we've always been the kind of people who just put our heads down and charge forward and get
things accomplished,'' LaRose said.
He pulled off the noteworthy feat of winning an Ohio Senate seat in his first election, handily defeating Democrat and Summit County Councilman Frank Comunale in the 27th District, which covers northern and western Summit. He received 56.7 percent of the vote.
It's unusual for a first-time candidate to be elected to the Ohio Senate. Senators typically have served at the local level or in the Ohio House, especially because Senate districts are so large (covering three House districts), said John Green, director of the University of Akron's Bliss Institute of Applied Politics.
He said first-time candidates must learn the political ropes quickly, and many make big campaign mistakes.
That wasn't the case with LaRose.
''He ran a good campaign,'' Green said. ''He learned a lot about how to during the process.''
LaRose, a former Green Beret in the U.S. Army who earned a Bronze Star while serving overseas, also enjoyed strong financial backing from state Republicans who wanted to keep a seat they have held since the mid-1980s. His campaign raised more than $430,000.
Praise for campaign
LaRose and political allies attribute his win not only to voter unhappiness with the economy, but also a combination of old-fashioned campaigning, such as door-to-door visits and the use of Facebook and other social media.
''He was very organized, methodical and relentless in his campaigning,'' said Sen. Tom Niehaus, a Republican from New Richmond and president pro tem in the Senate. ''He's certainly someone I'm looking forward to working with. He will be a person who will help us teach other candidates how to effectively campaign.''
Summit County Republican Party Chairman Alex Arshinkoff also said voters were attracted to LaRose's background: He voluntarily entered the military and went to Ohio State University after his time in the Army.
''He wants to be in public service,'' Arshinkoff said. ''He's interested in helping people. Frank has a great future.''
The day after the election, LaRose, wearing a weathered Ohio State baseball cap, a blue-and- white checkered dress shirt and jeans, sat in his campaign headquarters in Akron's Wallhaven area and said he's excited to head to Columbus.
He admitted the campaign was tiring and that he and his wife will take off a few days for a much-needed vacation. He and his supporters knocked on 22,000 doors, appeared at more than 400 public events and made more than 9,100 phone calls.
He also needs to meet with the Senate leadership and state ethics officials to find out whether he can keep his part-time job as economic development director in Brecksville.
At 31, he will be the second-youngest state senator. Sen. Joe Schiavoni, a Democrat from Canfield in Mahoning County, is younger by a few months.
With no legislative experience, LaRose said he will seek advice and guidance from such mentors as former House Speaker Jo Ann Davidson, Sen. Bill Harris from Ashland and family friend Bill Miller from Fairlawn.
One benefit is that he's stepping into the Senate majority. Republicans will hold a 23-10 advantage.
''The real work actually starts now when we get down to Columbus and start bringing our state back to prosperity,'' LaRose said. ''I'm not so naive to think that anything is going to happen overnight. I think we make some very tough decisions next year and get the Buckeye State back on track. I love this place, and it's not some place I'd like to see go down the tubes.''
The major challenge will be figuring out how to deal with a projected $8 billion budget gap.
''I've had some people who are outgoing members of the General Assembly say, 'Have fun,' '' he said. ''If you look at it, we've been on the campaign trail for the last year and a half saying things like, 'We're going to bring prosperity back to Ohio,' saying things like 'We can balance the budget without raising taxes.' We believe it. But now we've got to crunch the numbers and really get down to how do you do it . . . There are no easy choices next year. It's either increase taxes or cut spending, or some combination of the two, and I'm not interested in raising taxes.''
One of his goals is to bring back civility to the political process. He cited the example of former Republican Gov. James Rhodes and Democratic House Speaker Vern Riffe.
''They were politically and philosophically rivals when it came to political thought, but personally had a relationship,'' LaRose said. ''They could play cards on Friday night, and they did. I think that kind of thing is unfortunately missing in Columbus right now and I would like, in my own little way, to start trying to bring that back.''
He also said he wants to bring together the state senators and representatives from Summit County to work more as a team.
LaRose downplayed the voter groundswell for Republicans.
''The people of Ohio didn't say, 'Yeah, we love Republicans,' '' he said. ''That wasn't the message [on Election Day]. The message was, 'You get one more chance. We believe in the stuff you're talking about, but if you're only talk, then you guys are never going to get another chance.
''We believe in the stuff you are talking about — cutting taxes and creating a more reasonable regulatory environment and making Ohio a business-friendly state again. We like that. Now go down to Columbus and do it. And if you don't, we're going to fire you so fast your heads will spin.' ''
Rick Armon can be reached at 330-996-3569 or email@example.com.