William Hershey

COLUMBUS: If Ohio Democrats use history as their guide, they’ll be rooting for Republican Gov. John Kasich and Kasich’s allies to take over the state GOP’s central committee in the March 6 primary election.

If the Kasich forces gain control of the 66-member committee, current state Republican chairman Kevin DeWine, a former state legislator from suburban Dayton, could get the boot and be replaced by someone who, unlike DeWine, isn’t in the governor’s dog house.

The committee is made up of one man and one woman from each of Ohio’s 33 state Senate districts.

The last time a Republican governor controlled the state party, things turned out badly for the GOP.

Democrats, who had been wandering in Ohio’s political wilderness, gradually inched their way back to power and in two straight elections in the 1980s won every statewide executive race.

Democrats haven’t done that well since then, although they came close in 2006 when they won every race except state auditor. They had the “Coingate” scandal, starring Tom Noe with Republican Gov. Bob Taft in a supporting role, to thank for that.

The Republican governor unofficially presiding over the state GOP during the earlier Democratic renaissance was the inimitable James A. Rhodes — the only Ohio governor ever elected to four, four-year terms — who died in 2001 at 91.

Rhodes was many things. He was a master politician and political chameleon who could light up union halls and corporate board rooms, although not with the same message.

He didn’t just talk about economic development. When Rhodes wanted Honda to build cars in Ohio, he didn’t wait for feasibility studies. He just took off for Japan and persuaded company officials to set up shop in Marysville and, in the process, create good jobs for thousands of Ohio workers.

Party-building, however, wasn’t on Rhodes’ agenda. When it came to politics, his interests came first and the Republican Party’s a distant second.

Rhodes didn’t mind having a Democrat or two in statewide office. Rhodes even joked that there needed to be a Democratic governor once in a while, just to raise taxes. Rhodes defeated two Democratic incumbents — Mike DiSalle in 1962 and John J. Gilligan in 1974 — by denouncing them as tax happy. Once elected, Rhodes gladly spent the money raised by the taxes.

Rhodes first was elected governor in 1962 when Akron’s Ray C. Bliss was state Republican chairman. Bliss was a chairman’s chairman. His job was to get Republican candidates for every office — not just governor — elected. Bliss played no favorites.

Rhodes once told me that he and Bliss got along just fine — he ran the governor’s office and Bliss ran the state party.

Rhodes, as usual, was exaggerating.

Bliss never trusted Rhodes to look out for more than Rhodes’ own political interests. Their time together in state politics ended, however, in 1965, when Bliss went to Washington, D.C., to become national Republican chairman.

In 1962, with Bliss as state chairman and Rhodes as the candidate for governor, Republicans swept all statewide executive offices, a feat the GOP repeated in 1966 when Bliss’ influence still was strong.

Republicans didn’t achieve such a sweep again until 1994 when Bliss and Rhodes both were gone from the political scene.

Once Bliss left Ohio for the national chairmanship, Rhodes’ influence over the state party increased and the clout of a series of state chairmen declined. Rhodes did fine, while other statewide GOP candidates usually lost.

The Ohio Constitution prohibited Rhodes from seeking a third consecutive term as governor in 1970 so he sat out that election.

Democrat Gilligan was elected governor and Republicans won just two of six statewide executive races. Weak party leadership wasn’t the only reason. Republicans were damaged by the Crofters’ loan scandal, involving questionable loans the GOP-controlled state treasurer’s office made to two private companies.

In 1974, Rhodes was back at the top of the GOP’s ticket and upset Gilligan in the governor’s race. Republicans won just one other statewide executive race, secretary of state.

Rhodes ran for re-election a second time in 1978 and defeated Democrat Dick Celeste. Democrats won every other statewide executive office.

In 1982, with Rhodes again ineligible to seek a third consecutive term, Celeste clobbered Republican Clarence “Bud” Brown in the governor’s race in a Democratic sweep.

By 1986, Republicans talked of regrouping with new leadership at the top of the ticket. It was just talk.

A popular saying about Rhodes — if he’s breathing, he’s running — proved true. There was nobody around with the clout to stop him from seeking a fifth term. He won the nomination in a three-way race against Senate President Paul Gillmor and state Sen. Paul Pfeifer, now an Ohio Supreme Court justice.

Celeste trounced Rhodes in a second straight Democratic sweep,

That defeat effectively ended Rhodes’ political career, and in 1988 Republicans chose a Bliss-like independent-minded state chairman, Bob Bennett from Cuyahoga County.

In 1990, with Bennett leading the state party, Republican George Voinovich was elected governor, and Republicans won all other statewide executive offices except attorney general.

In 1994, Voinovich was re-elected in a Republican sweep. Voinovich wanted to replace Bennett with Alex Arshinkoff, then and now the Summit County Republican chairman. That effort ended when it became obvious that Bennett’s support among GOP operatives was wide and deep.

Bennett served as chairman until 2009 when DeWine took over. Republicans had suffered big losses in both 2006 and 2008 but in 2010 DeWine helped put together a ticket that swept the statewide races.

Kasich, however, wants somebody else.

“I just think we need to have somebody that’s going to unite everybody inside the party,” the governor said.

Among other things, Kasich and his allies are said to suspect the close alliance between DeWine and Republican Secretary of State Jon Husted.

Bennett and Bliss before him came to the state chairmanship after years of service in county Republicans parties. They had the grass-roots support needed to push back against challenges from Republican governors.

DeWine came to his job from the legislature, with little grass-roots experience. Maybe that won’t make any difference and he’ll prevail. Maybe not.

Republicans, and Democrats, have a lot at stake.

Hershey is a former Washington correspondent and Columbus bureau chief for the Beacon Journal. He also was the Columbus bureau chief for the Dayton Daily News.