The Republican Party is in the midst of a civil war, and two key battles are being fought in the Akron area.
Two GOP freshmen who have connections to the civility movement are under fire from tea party opponents, one over federal policy on spending and health care, and the other over social issues, among them gay marriage and abortion.
U.S. Rep. Dave Joyce, whose 14th District includes the northeast quarter of Summit County and much of the state to the north and east, will be challenged in the May 6 Republican Primary by State Rep. Matt Lynch. Lynch is backed by FreedomWorks, a tea party-supporting conservative action group. Joyce has the backing of the Main Street Partnership, founded by his predecessor, moderate Republican Steve LaTourette, who left Congress disgusted with the partisan rancor.
State Sen. Frank LaRose, in Ohio’s 27th District, represents much of western and northern Summit County, all of Wayne and western Stark County. A leader of a bipartisan legislative civility effort in Ohio and known for collaborating with Democrats on legislation, he faces first-time candidate Caleb Davenport. Davenport is campaigning on a pro-life, pro-marriage, pro-business agenda.
Both sides see the two races as nothing less than determining the future of the party, especially with tea party candidates also running for Republican State Central Committee seats against party-faithful candidates.
“If they can raise the money from their benefactors to make sure no tea party candidates win, they will have total control of the party,” said Tom Zawistowski, executive director of the Portage County TEA Party, whose group is backing Lynch and Davenport. “We will have to start our own party or go somewhere else.”
Ohio GOP spokesman Chris Schrimpf, however, said the tea party is misguided in its choice to challenge these incumbents, who both “have good, conservative records” and have been endorsed by the state party. Schrimpf predicts victories for Joyce and LaRose and damage to the credibility of Zawistowski, who mounted an unsuccessful attempt to chair the state Republican Party last year.
“You will see once again that Tom Z does not represent the tea party,” Schrimpf said. “I think he speaks for himself and he speaks for some individuals ... The tea party is a diverse group that isn’t represented by one voice.”
The winner in the 14th and 27th district primaries will face Democratic competition in the Nov. 4 election. Both Democratic candidates are unopposed in the primary.
Lynch has a simple reason for running against Joyce: He faced a challenge for his Statehouse seat from political novice Sarah LaTourette, the daughter of Steve LaTourette.
“Some suggested I should not take on another Republican,” Lynch said. “[Sarah] LaTourette showed that is not the case. It is OK in the Republican Party. I decided to accept the challenge.”
Lynch thinks Joyce warranted competition because he didn’t co-sponsor a bill to defund the federal health-care law, voted to raise the federal debt limit and received poor ratings on his voting record from prominent conservative groups.
“He’s simply become part of the go-along-to-get-along gang in Washington,” he said.
Joyce, though, said he voted to repeal the federal health-care law and proposed a bill aimed at cutting unnecessary federal spending. In terms of his voting, Joyce said groups can “pick and choose records” to serve their agendas.
Joyce said he decides whether to support legislation based on two issues: “Does this protect the hardworking taxpayers and build a strong economy for Northeast Ohio?”
Joyce has joined several groups aimed at fostering bipartisan cooperation in Congress and was among the GOP Congressional members who went on a “date” with a Democratic member to the State of the Union address last year.
“It’s important that we stop talking at — and start talking to — each other,” he said.
Both candidates have the backing of high-profile groups. Lynch was endorsed by FreedomWorks, whose executive vice president Adam Brandon came to town to announce its support. Joyce has the support of Steve LaTourette’s Main Street Partnership. Joyce is so far beating Lynch in fundraising, raising nearly $1.5 million to Lynch’s $78,500, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
“If you measure my success in how they are spending to stop me, I think I am doing well,” Lynch said.
Lynch has come under fire for tax issues. He said he got behind in his taxes in the early ’90s when his first wife was dying of leukemia, but paid what he owed. He said another tax error arose that was the fault of the county auditor, and he paid the small amount he owed.
Davenport, who has never before held office, said several Wayne County citizens urged him to run against LaRose.
“I have no desire to be a career politician,” said Davenport, who owns a financial planning company. “To say ‘no’ would mean I would not be doing what my civic duty was calling me to do.”
Davenport thinks LaRose deserved to be challenged, particularly because of his sponsorship of a bill barring discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Davenport said the bill, still in the legislature, would be problematic for businesses and he sees it as a precursor to the legalization of gay marriage.
“This is the first installment of a very liberal, unconstitutional agenda,” he said.
LaRose, though, who, like Joyce has been pushing for civility and better cooperation among politicians, stands by the bill.
“A lot of people find it astounding that in Ohio you can call an employee and fire them because they are gay,” he said. “I don’t think that’s right. I think that’s something we need to change.”
Davenport, supported by several conservative groups, including Ohio Right to Life, describes himself as “pro-marriage, pro-life and pro-business.” He thinks his age — 52 — plays in his favor to LaRose’s at 34.
“At this point in our state, I have a better perspective on what needs to happen to get the state back to where it needs to be,” he said.
LaRose sees his age as an advantage, helping to bring a different perspective to the Senate.
On the fundraising side, LaRose raised more than $67,000, spent $162,000 and still had about $25,000 on hand, while Davenport brought in about $41,000 in contributions and other income and spent $31,000, leaving him with about $9,000. Davenport loaned his campaign $12,000, according to pre-primary campaign finance reports filed last week with the Ohio Secretary of State.
After the primary, LaRose hopes the Republican Party can reunite and focus on beating the other party.
“When the primary is over, we need to come back in the big tent and be a party again and work to win elections this fall,” he said. “I realize what has been done has caused us to be a little weaker. We’ll overcome this.”
Lynch, however, isn’t sure this can happen. He thinks the GOP is in a “state of transition.”
“We have to decide as a party what do we stand for,” he said. “Are we really Democrat-light or are we a different choice — truly a conservative choice? The tension is evident.”
Stephanie Warsmith can be reached at 330-996-3705 or email@example.com. Follow on Twitter: @swarsmith and on Facebook: www.facebook.com/swarsmith. Read the Beacon Journal’s political blog at www.ohio.com/blogs/ohio-politics.