The battle for the soul of the Republican Party is coming to the heartland.
Late Wednesday night, Tea Party leaders in the all-important presidential battleground state of Ohio announced that one of their own, Ted Stevenot, 48, a business owner and past president of the Ohio Liberty Coalition, would mount a primary challenge to Republican governor John Kasich.
“Ted is serious about running. It is all about giving people a choice in this election, and in the case of Ted, a conservative choice,” said Tom Zawistowski, a Tea Party leader in the state who circulated a news release of the campaign announcement last night. “I don’t think many of conservative Republicans, who vote in primaries think that John Kasich has been a conservative at all.”
Many conservative thinkers have praised Kasich for taking an innovative approach to state government, particularly in the latter half of his first term, when he accepted federal money to expand Ohio’s Medicaid program, even though he has called for the repeal of the Affordable Care Act.
Kasich, who kicked off his campaign in 2010 by declaring that “I was in the Tea Party before there was a Tea Party,” moved to the center after an aggressive anti-union bill modeled on Wisconsin’s controversial legislation was defeated by the voters in a 2011 referendum. Besides the Medicaid expansion, Kasich resisted efforts to privatize the state’s highways, and raised turnpike tolls, increased spending, and taxed the energy industry for fracking on Ohio farmland. The moves won him high praises in places such as the Wall Street Journal, which suggested that the first-term governor could “rebrand the Republican Party by refashioning what it means to be a conservative in the 21st century,” and has put Kasich on a short list of potential 2016 presidential candidates.
The Tea Party challenge to the governor comes as the Republican establishment was looking to avoid conservative challenges that have cost the party winnable seats in Congress and in statehouses across the nation. Last year, GOP strategist Karl Rove announced the creation of a new super PAC, the Conservative Victory Project, designed to funnel the money from GOP mega-donors into establishment-backed primary campaigns.
Even when the hand-picked candidate of the Republican establishment has emerged victorious in these campaigns, they have been bruised for the general election contest.
On the Democratic side in Ohio, Ed Fitzgerald, the county executive of Cuyahoga County announced a campaign last year and has the backing of most of the Democratic establishment in the Buckeye State and in Washington, D.C. Fitzgerald, however, has stumbled out of the gate, after his choice for lieutenant governor, state senator Eric Kearney of Ohio, was revealed to have more than $800,000 in federal and state tax liens and was forced to withdraw his candidacy. Hoping to capitalize, earlier this week Tom Portune, the county executive of Hamilton County, announced his own bid for the Democratic nomination.
On the GOP side, Republicans promised that they would mount a vigorous defense of their governor.
“We are excited to support John Kasich in his re-election,” said state Republican Party chairman Matt Borges. “I am optimistic about the governor’s chances for victory in November and we are going to work hard to make that a reality.”
In Ohio, the Tea Party vs. the Establishment battle has played out in the backrooms as well as at the ballot box. Last year, Kasich installed Borges as the chairman of the state Republican Party over Zawistowski, who gathered 70 local Tea Party leaders to pen a letter in protest.
“The leaders of the Republican Party in Ohio have chosen to separate themselves and the party from the wishes and values of their support base,” the group wrote. “With this letter we put the party bosses on notice that we reject their betrayal of the party platform and our conservative values. We will not support them going forward but will instead support those who are true to our cause.”
That previous skirmish has led some to conclude that the primary challenge to Kasich is about payback for the intraparty battle last spring, but Zawistowski said it more about wresting control of the political process from the two major parties.
“The problem we have nationwide is that in trying to participate in the process, we have come to understand that the two major parties have hijacked the political process. They are by their own admission election machines. They do everything they can to make sure there is no primary so voters can’t choose.”