Battle for control roils GOP

State party contests mirror national unrest.

UPDATE: February 8, 2016 - The Ohio Republican Party endorsed State. Rep. Bob Hackett, R-London, over Beavercreek businessman Brian Walton in the race for the Ohio Senate 10th District seat.

Original story: February 6, 2016

An anti-establishment insurgency roiling the Ohio Republican Party and some of its county parties mirrors the national battle in Congress and the GOP presidential contest.

Coursing through the conflict is a strong current of tea party/liberty group viewpoints about what constitutes pure conservatism.

“We’re tired of the lack of representation,” said Kelly Kohls, a former Springboro school board member who is trying to unseat incumbent state central committee member Michelle Schneider, a former state representative.

“The best idea is to bring the Republican Party back to its foundations,” said Kohls, who formerly led the Warren County Tea Party and is now on the board of the county GOP.

Grassroots dissatisfaction is appearing at every level of GOP politics. Although Sen. Bernie Sanders is running somewhat of an anti-establishment campaign for the Democratic nomination, there is nothing on the Democratic side that comes close to equaling the level of insurgency being mounted by conservative groups against the party’s establishment.

Former House Speaker John Boehner, R-West Chester, resigned last year after years of battling the conservative wing of his party. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., too has encountered opposition from those who feel he doesn’t adhere to conservative values.

Last October, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, a presidential candidate, called McConnell “the most effective Democratic leader in modern times.”

“I don’t think there is any question that what you are seeing in the Ohio Republican party is the same as what is happening on the national stage,” said Mark Caleb Smith, director of Cedarville University’s Center for Political Studies.

Smith said many people mistrust the state party apparatus and feel that Republican leadership isn’t representing them or living up to true conservative values.

“Some of that is tea party based, some of that is conservative angst at what’s happening and some of it is displeasure at the establishment, however we define what that means,” said Smith.

“It’s all those things kind of woven together that’s created a kind of insurgency here.”

‘Good old days’

One example of the dissatisfaction is the crowded field in Ohio Republican Party races. The party is run by a 66-member central committee made up of one man and one woman elected to two-year terms by primary voters in the state’s 33 senate districts.

All 66 seats are up for election on March 15. And in those races, just 11 seats are not being contested and some races have multiple candidates.

The central committee is the engine for the party. It chooses the chairman, endorses candidates, funds campaigns and represents the official face of the party.

Matt Borges, chairman of the state GOP, said he’s not worried about a loss of control. “Almost all of them are going to lose,” he said of the challengers, and then ticked off what he said is an “unparalleled” record of accomplishment for his incumbents.

“When you consider the super majorities in our legislature, record majority in the (Ohio) House, statewide sweep for the fifth time in the last six elections. We landed the RNC Convention, we have our governor out there campaigning for president,” said Borges.

“These are the good old days in Republican politics in Ohio.”

David Pepper, chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party, said the GOP is witnessing the “chickens coming home to roost” in its contentious presidential primary nationally and in the intra-party fighting at the local and state level.

“I think this is the consequence of letting years of extreme rhetoric go unchallenged, unabated and not having the more mainstream, established Republicans ever say a word about it,” Pepper said.

“The establishment wing of the Republican Party actually enjoyed the tea party strand when it helped them win elections, but in the end they clearly don’t want them actually in positions to control the party,” Pepper said.

‘Not a winning message’

Borges and other Republicans were quick to say they are not anti-tea party. But Borges said some of insurgent factions are “injecting an unnecessary amount of invective into the process.”

He rejected the idea of a “litmus test or purity test” for who is really a Republican.

“That’s not building a winning coalition and that’s not a winning message,” Borges said.

Running without the party’s blessing can be a daunting challenge. Borges, for example, has refused to let county parties use the state party’s low-cost bulk mailing rate for candidates the state party doesn’t support.

And the state party is actively opposing 10 or 12 insurgents — among them Ben and Christy Jones of Butler Twp. and Brian “Sonny” Thomas of Warren County.

Thomas, who founded the Springboro Tea Party, received national attention in July 2013 after unfurling a Confederate flag at a school board meeting. He is seeking to unseat Bob McEwen, a former congressman, on the central committee.

Ben Jones runs the Omega Survivalist Facebook page and has used it to attack Republican leaders and to make comments suggesting that President Barack Obama’s testicles be cut off. In an interview after that post appeared, Jones said he was directing his comment at the U.S. defense secretary, not the president.

“There are a handful of candidates out there who don’t represent what our party is about or what our party needs to be about,” said Borges. “Since we are the elected representatives of the official apparatus of the state Republican party, we need to make sure that we present a better image, a better profile and more of a reflection of Republican voters in Ohio.”

That stance doesn’t sit well with Jones, who is running against the central committee’s most senior member, Dayton attorney Patrick Flanagan, who headed the Montgomery County Republican Party in the 1980s.

In an emailed response, Jones said that Borges and Flanagan “seem to be under the impression that State Central Committee is a reward to those who are good boys and girls and bow to their whims. The last I checked, it was an elected position where the person who wins the election represents the citizens that voted them into office.”

Christy Jones said she was “offended” by Borges comments and that the state central committee is “at odds with the National Republican values.”

“Apparently he only wants committee members who go along with whatever he wants and who will not ‘rock the boat,’” she said in emailed remarks.

‘Herding cats’

Flanagan said it “scared me to death” when Jones received 31 votes to his 40 in the Montgomery County Republican Party’s executive committee endorsement vote earlier this year.

“Apparently the tea party is trying to take over the Republican Party,” said Flanagan. “Rather than join the Republican Party, they are trying to take it over.”

There is a strong tea party faction in the Montgomery County GOP, many of them brought in by former chairman and Dayton Tea Party founder Rob Scott. During a January forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters of the Greater Dayton Area, Montgomery County Sheriff and GOP chairman Phil Plummer said managing the tea party members in his party was “like herding cats.”

“Everybody can do it better than you,” he said of the attitude he encounters.

Borges said he chastised Greene County GOP Chairman Robert Wood for “losing control” of an endorsement meeting last month. At the meeting, Wood’s central committee endorsed challengers over state party-endorsed candidates such as Sen. Rob Portman, who is seeking re-election to the senate; and former U.S. Rep. Steve Austria, who is running for re-election to the state central committee.

Businessman Brian Walton of Beavercreek also was endorsed over State Rep. Bob Hackett, R-London, who is running for the 10th Senate seat vacated this month by Sen. Chris Widener, R-Springfield.

Walton said Hackett isn’t a true conservative and that the state party needs to be taken back from “a small clique of individuals who have hijacked the party.”

“This is much like the era of 1776,” Walton said. “You are seeing the same type of fervor happening today within the Republican Party. They’re standing up and saying ‘no.’”

Hackett, who was endorsed by the Ohio GOP central committee on Monday, said he has a strong conservative record, as well as a reputation for doing what it takes to get things done.

“Those who are from the tea party in Columbus get nothing done because they won’t compromise,” he said. “It’s very very difficult to reason (with them) and once you won’t accept one thing from them you become the enemy and you have a target on your back.”

State Rep. Niraj Antani, R-Miamisburg, agrees. He said he is willing to work with the party’s insurgents, but,“It’s hard to work with people who care more about tearing you down than doing the job. Instead of trying to elect Republicans all they care about is trying to take down Matt Borges. All they want to do is throw bombs and get their names in the paper.”

Warren County GOP Chairman Ray Warrick, who like Kohls is a tea party supporter, said he agrees with her assessment that establishment Republicans have lost their way and need to be replaced.

“I’m extremely concerned that the Republican Party has got to right itself or we will be over as a party,” he said.

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