COLUMBUS: Once upon a time, Ohio Republicans had somebody to unlock the Tower of Babel where they’re holding themselves captive these days.
They had a state chairman who could make them speak the same language or at least politely ask for translators.
Republicans will elect a new state chairman on April 26, but if history is any guide the GOP’s new leader won’t be able to stop the infighting.
The two chairmen in the post-World War II era who succeeded in uniting the party came to power in very different circumstances than those for the new leader.
Republicans were desperate when they tapped Ray Bliss of Akron to take over as chairman in 1949. The GOP had lost nearly everything in the 1948 election that saw Democrat Harry Truman surprise everybody by defeating Republican Thomas Dewey for president.
They were nearly as desperate in 1988 when they reached up to Cleveland to make Bob Bennett the first chairman of the post-Jim Rhodes era. Democrats, led by Gov. Dick Celeste, had swept all statewide executive offices in back-to-back statewide elections in 1982 and 1986 and also held the state’s two U.S. Senate seats.
Bliss and Bennett both rebuilt the party into a juggernaut that usually made the Democrats second-place finishers. They stressed unity and kept fighting to a minimum.
“When you don’t have anything, everybody will unite,” Bennett told me the other day. “When you have everything they want to purify the party.”
Republicans have everything important these days — except for the U.S. Senate seat held by Democrat Sherrod Brown — and purification is running wild.
Gov. John Kasich, for example, wants to use federal bucks to expand Medicaid to provide health insurance for more poor people. Republican legislators all but call him an Obama lover.
Then there’s Republican U.S. Sen. Rob Portman’s flip-flop on gay marriage. Portman was against gay marriage before he was for it, based largely on some introspection after learning that his son Will is gay. Social conservatives consider him a heretic.
There’s another ingredient to the success Bliss and Bennett achieved that the new chairman won’t be able to put in the political mixer.
A Democrat occupied the governor’s office when each took over as chairman. That gave them both the latitude to set policy and bring malcontents into the fold.
Republican governors elected after Bliss and Bennett took over tried to push them around but it didn’t work.
In 1958, Republican Gov. C. William “Billy” O’Neill, against Bliss’ advice, backed a right-to-work ballot issue. The issue lost and so did O’Neill. Bliss stayed on as chairman only after Republican bigshots agreed to let him call the shots.
Rhodes, with Bliss’ help, was elected to the first of his four terms as governor in 1962. Bliss, despite some muscle flexing by Rhodes, kept control of the party until he left for Washington in 1965 to become Republican national chairman.
Once Bliss left, Rhodes gradually turned the state party into an annex for his own political benefit. That didn’t change until after Rhodes’ last and unsuccessful hurrah in 1986 when Celeste won re-election and denied Rhodes a fifth term as governor.
After Bennett became chairman, Republicans began winning statewide offices again. George Voinovich was elected governor in 1990 and re-elected in 1994. Voinovich tried to dump Bennett as chairman after his re-election but failed.
Bennett actually stepped down in 2009 when Kevin DeWine of Fairborn took over as state chairman. DeWine came to the chairmanship from the state legislature and didn’t have the grass-roots support that Bliss and Bennett each had cultivated over decades.
DeWine was already chairman when Kasich was elected governor in 2010 but that didn’t stop Kasich from forcing him to resign in 2012. Bennett agreed to come back, but only until a new chairman is elected this month.
Matt Borges, now the state GOP’s executive director, is considered the favorite to take over, but Tom Zawistowski, leader of the Portage County Tea Party, also is reported to be seeking the chairmanship.
Kasich and four other statewide Republican officeholders — Attorney General Mike DeWine, Auditor Dave Yost, Secretary of State Jon Husted and Treasurer Josh Mandel — back Borges.
Their support might help Borges win the job, but it also will make it harder for him to exercise any independence.
Bennett plans to stick around party headquarters as chairman emeritus through 2014 when Kasich and the four others are expected to seek re-election.
“I’m going to help whoever is the chairman,” said Bennett. “I assume it might be Matt.”
Hershey is a former Washington correspondent and Columbus bureau chief for the Beacon Journal. He also was the Columbus bureau chief of the Dayton Daily News. He is writing a biography of Ray C. Bliss with John C. Green, the director of the Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron. Hershey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.