The IRS scandal has put the Tea Party back in the news, and Ohio conservatives have been featured prominently in stories about the targeting of groups because of their political affiliations.
But an invigorated Tea Party may not be the best news for some Republicans, including Gov. John Kasich, who has alienated some members of his party just 18 months before he must face the voters.
“I think he needs to be concerned about his re-elections prospects,” said Lori Viars, vice chair of the Warren County Republican Party.
Viars said social and fiscal conservatives within the Ohio Republican Party are talking about fielding a primary challenger, backing a third-party candidate or just staying home from the polls because of their dissatisfaction with Kasich.
Although long considered a conservative, Kasich has angered some in his party by pushing for an expansion of Medicaid, proposing new taxes for the oil and gas industry, expanding the sales tax and backing Matt Borges for state GOP chairman. Borges, who was easily elected, lobbied for a gay-rights organization, owed tens of thousands of dollars in federal taxes and had been convicted of an ethics law violation.
Kasich would still have to be considered the frontrunner. He will likely face Cuyahoga County Executive Ed FitzGerald, a Democrat making his first statewide race. A poll by Quinnipiac University shows that 80 percent of voters don’t know enough about FitzGerald to form an opinion, and in a head-to-head matchup with FitzGerald, a former FBI agent and Lakewood mayor, Kasich is 10 points ahead.
But conservative disenchantment could be a wild card. Chris Littleton, who is behind a campaign to put a “right-to-work” issue on the statewide ballot, thinks a third party or independent candidate is a likely scenario.
“There is definitely talk of some very serious candidates — people who can self-fund (a campaign),” he said.
In 2010 — a banner year for Ohio Republicans — Kasich eked out a win over incumbent Democrat Ted Strickland by less than 2 percentage points, making it the closest gubernatorial race in Ohio since 1978. The Green and Libertarian candidates in that race pulled a combined 3.9 percent of the vote.
Littleton thinks 2014, for a variety of reasons, could have a stronger third party turnout. Several factors are working against Kasich, he said, including an invigoration of Tea Party voters and Libertarians, and what appears to be the absence of a divisive Democratic primary that would drain campaign coffers.
“I don’t think that spells a very good recipe for John Kasich in 2014,” Littleton said.
Kasich supporters brushed aside such speculation, particularly 18 months before voters will cast their ballots.
Montgomery County Republican Party Chairman Rob Scott said only a small group of conservatives are upset now.
“I think that will simmer down by the time we get to next year,” Scott said. “They’ll come home.”
Bob Clegg, a Republican political consultant and Kasich supporter, agreed and said the Tea Party activists recognize the necessity of working within the GOP in a two-party system.
“If there is anything worse than a Republican you don’t like, it’s a Democrat,” Clegg said. “They get that.” He added that true Libertarians aren’t voting for Kasich in the first place so a strong candidate wouldn’t likely peel away votes from him.
Green Party candidates tend to pull votes from Democrats while Libertarians usually pull from Republicans, according to political scientists. But the Green Party of Ohio is considering not fielding a gubernatorial candidate in 2014, according to Dennis Spisak, a school principal who ran for the office as the Green candidate in 2010. A decision will come in late summer or early fall, he said.
Meanwhile, Aaron Keith Harris, a spokesman for the Libertarian Party of Ohio, said, “Whoever is going to be our gubernatorial candidate will have a very organized and energized party.”
He predicts a “break out” year for Ohio Libertarians. “I am 100 percent confident we’ll be in double digits in the governor’s race in 2014. And that is no spin. Kasich is such a disappointment to people,” Harris said. “…A lot of his base is going to desert him. They’re going to stay home or they’re going to vote for us. And John Kasich is not going to be re-elected.”
Cedarville University political scientist Mark Caleb Smith said Kasich’s trouble right now is there are too many fractures to handle.
“He really has a hard time being consistently small government or consistently social conservative or consistently Libertarian because he is dealing with some splintered constituents. And that’s not unusual,” Smith said. “We are still some ways out from the election so he has time to sort of paper over those differences to bring people together.”
Still, a mix of issues that voters could see on the statewide ballot in 2014 may drive conservatives and Libertarians to the polls, which could be problematic for Kasich.
Activists from different camps are collecting signatures for constitutional amendments that would allow gay marriage and would make it illegal to require union membership as a condition of employment. Other groups are talking about amendments that would expand Ohio Medicaid and legalize medical use of marijuana.
Three of the issues — right to work, freedom to marry and medical marijuana — appeal to Libertarians’ belief in less government regulation and the fourth goes directly against the Libertarians’ core ideology of the less government.
“The typical two-party response to insurgents is to absorb them. In the end, my guess is he’d take positions that would reasonate with Libertarians to fend off that kind of attack, especially if he felt threatened by it,” Smith said.
But, he said, if Medicaid expansion is on the ballot, Kasich will have to prominently advocate for it since it has been a signature piece of his two-year budget proposal.
Third-party performance in gubernatorial elections (Back to top)
2010: Green party candidate carried 1.52%, Libertarian carried 2.39% in the governor’s race (Kasich 49, Strickland 47)
2006: Two third party candidates combined took 2.8% of the vote in the governor’s race (Strickland 60.54, Blackwell 36.65)
2004: No third party senate candidate
2002: Natural Law candidate carried 3.9% in governor’s race (Taft 57.7, Hagan 38.3)
1998: Natural Law candidate carried 1.93%, Reform candidate carried 3.32% (total 5.25%) in governor’s race. (Taft 50, Fisher 44.69)
1994: Third party candidate carried 3.2 percent (Voinovich 71.8, Burch 24.98)
1990: No third party candidate (Voinovich 55.7, Celebrezze 44.27)
1986: No third party candidate (Celeste 60.6, Rhodes 39.36)
1982: Three third party candiates carry combined 2 percent (Celeste 59, Brown 38.8)
1978: Three third party candidates carry combined 3 percent (Rhodes 49.3, Celeste 47.6)
Source: Secretary of State’s website of official results