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Club for Growth Ponders Its Options in Ohio

Is Ohio joining or leaving the Club?

Heading into 2008, the state’s Congressional map appears to be ripe for the picking by the conservative Club for Growth, with three open seats in districts currently held by Republicans. At least two of those open districts have inexpensive media markets and large state legislative delegations, meaning deep benches for Republican candidates. What’s more, conservative Republicans in Ohio are angry after Democrats swept the statewide elections in 2006.

“There definitely is a heightened anti- incumbency and anti-tax sentiment in Ohio,” said Jon Lerner, a consultant who does work for the club. “So that does make things more attractive to what you might call anti-establishment candidacies.”

Though club officials would not say which candidates they are considering endorsing, spokeswoman Nachama Soloveichik said they are looking for potential opportunities against Rep. Jean Schmidt (R) in the 2nd district, plus the seats of retiring Reps. David Hobson (R) and Ralph Regula (R). Soloveichik also said they are looking to a lesser degree at the seat of retiring Rep. Deborah Pryce (R) in the west Columbus suburbs — a more expensive media market.

State Rep. Tom Brinkman, who recently joined the Republican primary for Schmidt’s seat, already has talked with the club, according to his campaign. The club has played before in the district in 2005, when Schmidt pulled out a win in a very crowded special Republican primary to replace outgoing Rep. Rob Portman (R).

But another reason Ohio might be a target for the fiscally conservative group is that both state legislators running for open seats in Hobson’s 7th district and Regula’s 16th district voted for former Gov. Bob Taft’s (R) budget in 2003. The club already has used that vote as a point of differentiation in their advertisements for their preferred candidate, state Sen. Steve Buehrer (R), in the recent 5th district special primary — who nevertheless lost to now-Rep. Bob Latta (R) in the race to replace the late Rep. Paul Gillmor (R).

According to Lerner, the vote was the largest tax and spending increase in Ohio history and a big deal to fiscal conservatives.

Hobson’s chosen successor, state Sen. Steve Austria (R), has been endorsed by the Ohio delegation and elected officials throughout the state. However, Austria also voted for the much-publicized Taft budget — but former state Rep. Ron Hood (R), who filed for the Congressional race in early December, doesn’t have that on his record.

But it’s still uncertain whether Hood, who did not return calls for comment, fits the bill for the club.

“I don’t know how much Club for Growth is going to play in [these] races,” Hobson said. “They got pretty bloodied up in the Gillmor area. This is a district that doesn’t have that kind of situation. Ron Hood is not a sitting [lawmaker]. When they went for Buehrer, he was a sitting state Senator. … You don’t have that with Hood and Austria.”

According to two Ohio Republican political operatives, the club is taking a second look at the whole state since Buehrer’s defeat. The special election left the Republican the club worked to defeat weak enough to be targeted by national Democrats in the 5th district special election.

Regardless of whether Austria will have the Club for Growth working against his candidacy, he likely will have to spend precious campaign dollars on a primary. Clark County Republican Chairman Dan Harkins, who said he has not been contacted by the club, also declared his candidacy for Hobson’s seat.

Both Hobson and Harkins acknowledge that there is a tense relationship between the nine-term Congressman and Austria and Harkins, the Republican chairman for the second-largest county in the district.

“It’s been difficult to have a relationship with him because he doesn’t speak to me, or invite me to meetings,” Hobson said. “And he has the same lack of relationship with Steve Austria, Ross McGregor and Chris Widener, who are both the state Representatives in the area. And I think that’s a rather unusual situation for a county chair to have that relationship with his elected delegation. It’s an unusual situation. I’ve never had it with another chairman, anywhere.”

Harkins denied Hobson’s accusation, saying he always invites all of the local elected officials to county events.

“I think Hobson’s criticisms are not reflective of the facts,” Harkins said. “In the 10 years that I’ve been party chair, we’ve had substantial improvements in the number of Republican elected officials in the county, we’ve had substantial improvement in the finances of the county and we’ve also had a steady increase in the number of active volunteers.”

Regardless of the existing feud in the 7th district, Austria likely will have to spend money in the primary against Harkins, Hood and perhaps also the Club for Growth. But Republicans still are favored to hold the seat.

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