Ohio’s tea partyers are an unhappy lot these days. They are upset with the direction of the Republican Party on several fronts, from Gov. John Kasich’s push to expand Medicaid under President Obama’s Affordable Care Act to U.S. Sen. Rob Portman’s embrace of same-sex marriage.
Last month, establishment Republicans on the party’s State Central Committee rallied behind Matt Borges, a Kasich ally, electing him state chairman over Tom Zawistowski, executive director of the Portage County Tea Party.
Borges won big, 48-7, but Zawistowski has repeatedly emphasized ideological purity over winning. Over the weekend, he met with Don Shrader, the chairman of the Ohio Constitution Party, to discuss the possibility of joining forces, citing common values.
Zawistowski also has hinted at forming a new political party of his own. Other tactics under discussion among tea-party conservatives are taking out incumbent Republicans in primaries next year or just staying home in selected races.
None of the options is good news for Ohio Republicans as they head into 2014. Democrats are just getting their ticket organized and developing an effective message. Still, in close races, a splintered or dispirited base could spell defeat for Republicans. After all, Kasich was elected in 2010 by just two percentage points over Democratic incumbent Ted Strickland.
A third party could also cause damage. George W. Bush was convinced that Ross Perot’s 21 percent of the vote in 1992 in Ohio probably cost his father the state, a crucial battleground in his failed re-election effort.
Although polling showed Perot drawing evenly from both sides, Bush and GOP strategists concluded that many of the self-identified Democrats in surveys had actually voted Republican at the presidential level for years.
A third party formed along the lines contemplated by Zawistowski would be one dedicated to small government, low taxes and conservative stands on social issues. Almost certainly, it wouldn’t hurt Ohio Democrats one bit.
If Zawistowski and his allies decide to stay within the party and fight, they could seize the advantage in low-turnout Republican primaries, where a relatively small group of activists can make a big difference. The trouble is, ideologically pure candidates don’t do so well in general election campaigns, where they frighten moderate voters.
For his part, Borges has sounded accommodating, hearkening back to the “big tent” philosophy. That’s smart because a recent national study based at the College of William and Mary (and happily touted by Zawistowski) showed that tea party supporters now make up a majority of voters who show up in Republican primary elections.
But the study also indicated that tea party supporters are not interested in compromising on issues, even if it means losing elections, which flies in the face of the real reason to pitch a big tent — to form a coalition big enough to win.
While keeping arms open, Borges and those who backed him (all of Ohio’s statewide Republican officeholders and legislative leaders) must be careful not to be pushed too far to the right. That means defeating primary challengers who appear doomed for failure in general election campaigns.
Otherwise, time is on the side of party regulars. By 2000, Perot’s Reform Party was a remnant of United We Stand America, the citizens’ group founded after Perot’s 1992 campaign as an independent. Its nominee, Pat Buchanan, ended up with 0.57 percent of the vote in Ohio, a far cry from Perot’s 21 percent.
In other words, today’s tea partyers could easily suffer the same fate, victims of disorganization, fatigue and an inability to win top offices, the source of patronage and money.
In the long run, a third party like the one envisioned by Zawistowksi actually might work to the advantage of the Republican Party by siphoning off the most ideologically committed tea partyers into an organization doomed to extinction.
Free of the fear of fending off a primary challenge from the far right, Republican candidates would be able to adopt more moderate policies, the key to winning in general election campaigns.
If the William and Mary study is accurate, Borges and those who backed him have their work cut out convincing a sizeable group of tea party voters that the real work of governing takes place at the center, not at the fringes.
Hoffman is a Beacon Journal editorial writer. He can be reached at 330-996-3740 or emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.