Maybe dumping Kevin DeWine wasn’t such a good idea, after all, Gov. John Kasich and his supporters may be thinking these days.
DeWine was ousted as chairman of the Ohio Republican Party in 2012, Kasich and his allies worried about DeWine steering a course independent of the governor’s office.
In the aftermath, former chairman Bob Bennett came out of retirement, but only on a temporary basis.
Friday, the leadership vacuum will be filled. In the race for chairman, Matt Borges, the party’s executive director, will face Tom Zawistowski, a Tea Party activist from Portage County.
If the 66 members of the State Central Committee pay attention to endorsements from Ohio’s top Republican officeholders, they will elect Borges. But rather than the smooth transfer of power the GOP leadership had in mind, Borges’ ascension has been a rocky road.
Part of this has been due to Zawistowski’s relentless attacks, but not all of it. Borges has problems of his own making, ones that he has let fester. If he wins the chairmanship, as is likely, he will have to move quickly to repair his reputation and heal internal rifts before the 2014 elections.
Tea Party Republicans never really liked Borges to begin with, based on gay rights and ethics issues. Borges was a registered lobbyist for Equality Ohio, a group founded by gay rights advocates in 2005 in response to the passage of an amendment to the Ohio Constitution banning same-sex marriage and civil unions.
In 2004, Borges, ex-chief of staff for Joe Deters, the state treasurer at the time, was involved in a nasty ethics scandal. He was convicted of lining up special treatment for rogue broker and campaign contributor Frank Gruttadauria when contracts for handling the state’s financial business were handed out by the treasurer. Borges’ ethics violation was later expunged, the ex-Deters staffer claiming he was a victim of a politically motivated witch hunt.
In recent days, the Dayton Daily News reported that Borges owed more than $500,000 in back taxes. Lately, the total was revised downward, and Borges’ attorney said this week that all but a single disputed year’s worth would be paid in full by Thursday.
Both Jon Husted, Ohio secretary of State and DeWine ally, and Mike DeWine, Ohio attorney general and second cousin to Kevin, said they were not aware of the tax problems when they signed a letter endorsing Borges. They asked him to clear things up, but didn’t withdraw support. Husted later said he had planned to stay neutral in the race for state chairman, until Borges told him he would be the only top official to do so.
Meanwhile, Zawistowski issued salvos of press releases, among them a letter from Ashtabula GOP Chairman Charlie Frye asking Borges to withdraw and suggesting Dale Fellows, the Republican chairman in Lake County, as a compromise candidate. Another release listed social conservatives backing Zawistowski. Wednesday, Zawistowski challenged Borges to a full-fledged debate, which he proposed for Thursday in front of the State Central Committee, then called it off.
As the Bennett era ends, it is unlikely that the kind of party structure he built, a strong, independent organization that carefully recruited candidates and built an effective fundraising arm, will continue. Bennett, the organizer, came in when the party was down; it now overwhelmingly dominates state government.
Borges, a capable manager, would be in the Kasich camp as the governor’s re-election bid launches next year, the party structure becoming subservient to the governor’s office but still following Bennett’s organizational and fundraising model. For Borges personally, the job would be a test of lessons learned from his contact, under Deters, with Columbus’ pay-to-play culture.
Zawistowski would realign the party structure to serve a narrow, ideological agenda of lower taxes, less government and adherence to conservative stands on social issues such as abortion and marriage rights.
That would put Ohio Republicans in line with where the party is going nationally, its base now firmly entrenched in conservative Southern and Western states. The realignment would ensure a strong turnout among the most loyal Republican cohorts. The danger in the long run is that demographic trends would put the GOP at a chronic disadvantage in Ohio.
If the Republican base narrowed to below 51 percent of regular voters, with ideological litmus tests scaring off moderate swing voters, the Republican Party would be unable consistently to win statewide races.
Hoffman is a Beacon Journal editorial writer. He can be reached at 330-996-3740 or emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.