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Tea Party leaders threaten GOP over recent moves

A group of dozens of Tea Party leaders and other conservative advocates issued an open letter Thursday that broadly rejects recent moves by top Ohio Republicans and promises to stop supporting them.

Among their grievances: Republican U.S. Sen. Rob Portman’s recent announcement that he now supports gay marriage, as well as key elements of Republican Gov. John Kasich’s budget plan, which proposes expanding Medicaid, hiking taxes on oil and gas drillers, and swapping the new taxing of previously untaxed services with state income tax cuts.

The expectation that the expected selection of Matt Borges as the next Ohio Republican Party’s chairman was the tipping point that led to the letter, officials said. The group takes issue with Borges’ work as a lobbyist in 2011 for gay-rights group Equality Ohio and his 2004 misdemeanor ethics conviction that was later expunged.

Tom Zawistowski, president of the We the People Convention and executive director of the Portage County TEA Party said GOP leaders have turned their backs on the “rank and file” of the Party and they won’t stand for it.

“With this letter we put the party bosses on notice that we reject their betrayal of the party platform and our conservative values,” Zawistowski wrote. “We will not support them going forward but will instead support those who are true to our cause.”

Along with Zawistowski, more than 80 people, including Warren County Right to Life vice president Lori Viars signed the letter.

“Some of our Republican officials seem hell-bent on alienating conservative voters and volunteers, which reduces voter turnout,” Viars said. “They ignore the GOP platform, choosing to put themselves outside the mainstream of our party base.”

Ohio House Speaker Bill Batchelder (R-Medina) said the group’s concerns about Kasich’s budget have guided him and other Republican legislators toward what likely will end up being big changes to Kasich’s proposal.

“I would simply say that obviously the people in our caucus have great empathy with those folks, and equally obvious we have a heck of a lot to get done here,” Batchelder said. “Which I think the result will be at least acceptable to them, even if it doesn’t cause wild enthusiasm.”

Area Republicans weren’t terribly surprised by the volley. Warren County Commissioner Tom Ariss said he agrees with the group’s stance on limited government and taxation but believes Kasich is on track.

“Many of the points to me are more personal than they are objective,” he said. “I kind of have an idea where they’re coming from, but I think this is more their personal feelings versus what the governor and the legislature are trying to do that’s going to be good for the state as a whole.”

Kasich’s spokesman Rob Nichols’ response to the letter was to send out a missive outlining Kasich’s accomplishments during his two years in office, including closing a $7.7 billion “budget imbalance,” slashing $800 million in taxes in 2011 and a proposal for a $1.4 billion tax cut. On Medicaid, Nichols said the system needs modernization.

“While it’s not a perfect program, under the leadership of Gov. Kasich, Ohio’s Medicaid system has taken significant steps that have made Ohio a national leader in lowering the rate of growth of Medicaid while improving health outcomes,” he said.

Butler County GOP Chairman Dave Kern said he wasn’t prepared to make a comment on the letter.

Butler County Treasurer Nancy Nix said what is happening here isn’t unusual.

“The letter represents the ideological divide within the Party between the conservative, evangelical base and the more moderate wing of the Party. Candidates need the conservative base to win primary elections, but they need the moderate base along with Independents to win in the general (election),” she said. “With both parties becoming more ideologically polarized, these rifts are natural, and are occurring at the national, state, and even local levels to some extent. Who ultimately wins is anybody’s guess.”

Hamilton County GOP Chairman Alex Triantafilou said he won’t criticize anyone for voicing their opinions, and he hopes the powers that be will listen to all.

“I’m not surprised, I’ve been hearing similar grumblings here,” he said. “I am a person who wants to bring the party together. I’m concerned when faithful conservatives speak out this way… What you are seeing is a GOP that is trying to find its future. A letter like this and feelings being expressed by people from every corner of the party are expressing dissatisfaction.”

As for the Portman revelation, Ariss said he can’t fault the man, especially since his family is involved. Triantafilou said Portman’s announcement also fueled the fracture.

“There are a fair number of Republicans, young Republicans who are supporting Sen. Portman,” he said. “Then there is a group of strong conservatives who are opposed. It is one more issue that has us divided at the moment.”