By Julie Carr Smyth
COLUMBUS: Ohio’s tea party movement will work to recruit a new primary challenger to Republican Gov. John Kasich after their first contender backed out of the race, a leading activist said Sunday.
Tom Zawistowski told the Associated Press that heavy media attention might have been a contributing factor in tea party leader Ted Stevenot’s announcement late Saturday that he was withdrawing, less than a week after he had entered the contest.
“I just don’t think a lot of people in our movement have experience with the media, and it’s a little overwhelming for them,” Zawistowski said. “At the same time, what’s really stuck in our craw is this idea of not having a choice. We have to figure out a way to do that that’s manageable, and we’re going to continue to try.”
Tea party supporters have until Feb. 5 to field an alternative to Kasich in May’s primary election.
Kasich told reporters in Columbus last month he wasn’t fretting about possible primary opposition: “I’m too busy running the state. Whoever comes, they come.”
Primary challenges to incumbent governors in Ohio are rare. A write-in ticket opposing Democratic Gov. Richard Celeste mustered fewer than 1,000 votes in the 1986 primary, while Republican Gov. James Rhodes turned back a 1978 primary opponent by a ratio of more than 2-to-1. Both incumbents were re-elected.
However, some tea party activists in Ohio have been grumbling about Kasich and other leading Republicans for months, saying they aren’t adhering to conservative principles. It’s a conflict that’s not unique to the state that has become pivotal every four years in presidential races.
In an emailed statement, Stevenot said he decided not to run — despite “a tremendous outpouring of support and encouragement” — after discussions with family, friends and advisers.
“I do this reluctantly, because I know that part of what has gone wrong with our political process is that the two major parties have made it exceedingly difficult for a common person to run for office,” Stevenot said.
Indeed, leaders of the two major parties usually hope to avoid primary contests because they can be divisive and drain funds from the general election campaign. Ohio’s GOP is firmly behind Kasich, and the Ohio Democratic Party is firmly behind its presumptive nominee, Cuyahoga County Executive Ed FitzGerald of Cleveland.
Yet Hamilton County Commissioner Todd Portune announced last week in Cincinnati his plans also to seek the nomination — setting up a Democratic primary.
Portune said he was responding to the desire for a choice from rank-and-file Democrats — leaving him the option of bowing out if support for his candidacy doesn’t materialize.
“You have positive discussions about the issues because, after all, it is a family discussion,” Portune said. “You don’t need to go negative. When it’s over, you bring the party together and the party rallies behind the successful candidate.”
His announcement follows last month’s departure of state Sen. Eric Kearney, a Cincinnati Democrat, as FitzGerald’s running mate because of tax problems. Portune said he has more experience than FitzGerald and the proven ability to win votes in southern Ohio.
The ticket that was to be led by Stevenot, a Clermont County tea party activist and former president of the statewide Ohio Liberty Coalition, had also been hit by tax questions.
He said in Saturday’s statement that his decision to drop out had nothing to do with reports of financial difficulties encountered by his running mate, Brenda Mack. He said she faced her financial problems while battling a rare form of cancer.
“During her illness, she understandably struggled to make ends meet and run her business,” he wrote. “She ended up selling nearly everything she had just to survive.”
Zawistowski rejected the notion that failure to field a viable tea party challenger to Kasich reflects a lack of public support for the movement’s ideas.
“It’s not like life or death for us. People are not expecting us to do it; nobody’s done it since 1978,” he said. “I would just hope that people are starting to hear the message, that people are unhappy with their government, that people are suffering — physically, really suffering — out here.”
Associated Press writer Dan Sewell contributed to this report.