A Look at Ohio

Posted February 2, 2004 at 6:41pm

This is the second in a two-part series examining the future of Ohio politics.

If the Ohio Republican Party had a 2004 election motto, it probably would be “success hasn’t spoiled us yet.”[IMGCAP(1)]

After the 2002 elections, party Chairman Robert Bennett boasted about retaining the governorship for the longest period since 1822, matching the record for the number of state House seats held and increasing the state Senate majority to its largest margin since 1967. But he warned the party faithful to take nothing for granted.

“Ohioans have entrusted us with another four years of Republican leadership, and we cannot take that trust for granted,” he said. “We also cannot allow our last effort to be our best. The challenges of politics offer no rest for the weary, and complacency threatens to be our greatest enemy.”

Going into this year’s elections, the GOP controls all statewide offices, the Legislature, both Senate seats and a majority of House districts. But it is not content to stop there, according to Ohio Republican Party Communications Director Jason Mauk.

“Ohio is a competitive, two-party state. We’re building the most comprehensive and aggressive voter-turnout program in Ohio politics,” he continued. “We’re building a grassroots farm team that will [bring us] the next generation of Republican leaders.”

Republican success lies at the county and local level, Mauk said.

“We have worked to build up our county parties,” he said. “That’s how we identify up and comers in our party. The county chairmen and state committee members [tell us] who we might be able to tap for future office.”

This year the GOP is poised to retain its Congressional seats, as Sen. George Voinovich and the party’s 12 Representatives are favored over their Democratic challengers. But they are not expected to take away any seats held by Democrats.

“We’d love to pick up” Rep. Marcy Kaptur’s 9th district seat, Mauk said. The GOP recruited a “well-respected” candidate in Lucas County Auditor Larry Kaczala, but “Kaptur is a very formidable incumbent,” he said.

Likewise, the party would relish relieving Rep. Dennis Kucinich of his 10th district seat, but Mauk concedes it probably cannot do so “this time.”

“There are unhappy Kucinich constituents who would love to replace him,” Mauk said.

Looking beyond 2004, one can see why Bennett is bent on vigilance.

Three of the party’s statewide officeholders have declared their intentions to seek the governorship in 2006 as Gov. Bob Taft (R) is term-limited.

Attorney General Jim Petro, Auditor Betty Montgomery and Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell are already raising millions for what could be a bruising primary.

“That’s politics,” Mauk said. “All three decided they’d like to run for governor. [Republicans] will have three highly qualified candidates to choose from. We always love to avoid a primary if possible and [use that money] to fight the Democrats, but it’s an essential part of the political process.”

Regardless, a three-way gubernatorial primary means two of the GOP’s rising stars will be locked out of state office until at least 2010.

That leaves openings for the “down-ballot” races.

State Treasurer Joe Deters (R) will likely run for attorney general as a result, Mauk said. That would then free up his post possibly for Lt. Gov. Jennette Bradley (R), the state’s first black lieutenant governor and the nation’s first black woman to hold that post. The former bank executive would be a natural fit there but she “could really do anything” she wanted, Mauk said, adding that she could run for “any open statewide office.”

Another problem facing the GOP as it matures in its leadership of the state is term limits, Mauk admitted.

State House and Senate members are barred from serving more than eight years — that’s four terms in the House and only two in the Senate.

Bennett and other party leaders are looking into the possibility of increasing that limit to 12 years, Mauk said.

“We’re concerned about the impact of turnover,” he said, adding that legislators can lose their focus and begin looking for appointments and other opportunities very early in their tenure. Additionally, there’s the issue of institutional memory, which the party would like to see preserved, he said.

The state House Speaker and the Senate President, both Republicans, are bumping up against the term limit.

Speaker Larry Householder is said to have ambitions of running for auditor in 2006, but he reported raising an impressive $1.4 million last year and one wonders if he might shift goals.

He and Blackwell are currently in a nasty war of words over the secretary of state’s efforts to repeal the one-cent state sales tax increase early.

“I think Kenny [Blackwell] is sort of the Rodney Dangerfield of Ohio politics: He’s full of one-liners, but he never gets any respect,” The Columbus Dispatch quoted Householder as saying.

Mauk said the tiff does not concern party elders.

“That’s politics,” he said. “The Republican Party is a big tent and there’s room for disagreement in our party,” he said.

While Householder’s ambitions are known, it seems Senate President Doug White does not have his eye on higher office, Mauk said.

“He has not expressed interest” in statewide office yet, Mauk said.

It also seems Taft, who comes from a long line of famous and powerful politicians, will retire from politics when his term expires at the end of 2006, Mauk said.

Anticipating a reshuffling in the state officeholder lineup and the possible retirement of several big Republican guns, the party is keeping its focus on the farm team.

Figures to watch, according to Mauk, are Mike Allen, a Hamilton County prosecutor; Kaczala, the Kaptur challenger; and Maggie Thurber, a Lucas County commissioner.