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What’s the Matter With Ohio?

How Republicans lost the Buckeye State.

By 7.2.08

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This article appears in the June 2008 issue of The American Spectator. To subscribe to our monthly print edition, click here.

AS OHIO GOES, so goes the nation. Except maybe with a little bit more feeling: During the 1990s, Republicans achieved a level of dominance here that far exceeded Newt Gingrich's in Washington. In 2006, the Democrats did better in Ohio than in the nation as a whole. Now the Buckeye State GOP is in the doldrums and some of its problems may have implications for the national party, even if bitter voters clinging to guns and religion manage to deliver the state's electoral votes to John McCain this fall.

Whatever suspense there was on election night 1992 basically ended when the networks called Ohio for Bill Clinton. Clinton carried the state again four years later. But his successes masked the state's rightward shift throughout the decade. Clinton barely edged George H.W. Bush 40 percent to 38 percent and beat Bob Dole 47 percent to 41 percent. In both cases, he underperformed the national popular vote and saw some of his narrowest margins in any big state. And few Democrats did better in Ohio than Bill Clinton during the 1990s.

Three things helped the Republicans dominate Ohio politics from 1990 until recently: redistricting, term limits, and the Democrats. Republicans began the decade in control of the state Apportionment Board, helping them draw district lines to their favor. In 1992, state voters passed a term limits law that kept the more popular Democratic elected officials from the 1980s from being re-elected in perpetuity. Finally, the increasing liberalism and ineptitude of the state Democratic Party was a poor match for many Ohioans outside the Cleveland-dominated northeast section of the state.

By 2004, Republicans held all six statewide executive offices. They controlled two-thirds majorities in both houses of the state legislature. Republicans had a 5 to 2 majority on the elected state supreme court. The GOP took both U.S. Senate seats and held 12 of Ohio's 18 seats in the House of Representatives. George W. Bush beat Al Gore by 50 percent to 46 percent in the 2000 presidential election. Despite John Kerry's desire to turn the Buckeye State into the 2004 equivalent of the Florida recount debacle, Bush prevailed again four years later by 51 percent to 49 percent -- thus giving the Republican incumbent his winning margin in the Electoral College.

At various points in the '90s, a Republican held the congressional seat now (safely) occupied by Dennis Kucinich. They held the House seat vacated by current Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland. A Republican served two terms as mayor of Columbus. After John Glenn's final re-election bid in 1992, the Democrats did not win another statewide office -- with the exception of nominally nonpartisan supreme court races -- for 14 years. In 1994, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate won just 25 percent of the vote. The state GOP boasted national rising stars like John Kasich, Gingrich's trusted scalpel on the House Budget Committee, and John Boehner, today the House minority leader. The Republicans held the governorship longer than any party in Ohio since the early 19th century.

THEN IT ALL CAME crashing down. In the 2006 elections, Democrats won every statewide executive office except for auditor, including the governorship by a margin of 60 percent to 37 percent. The Democrats picked up a U.S. Senate seat, a congressional seat -- with near-pickups in three others -- a net gain of seven state house seats, and one state senate seat. Republicans still control both chambers of the state legislature, won a December 2007 special election to fill an empty House seat, and have even increased their majority on the supreme court to all seven seats, but most trends aren't in their favor.

Republicans lost Ohio for the same reasons they lost the country: corruption, inability to cope with voter anxiety about the war or the economy, and reluctance to embrace a reform agenda. "Half our elected officials are just Democrat-lite," groused a Medina County GOP Lincoln Day reveler. "What's the point of being a Republican anymore?" The conservative, reformist wing of the state party was never dominant, not even at the height of 1994's revolutionary rhetoric.

More typical of Ohio Republicanism is George Voinovich, who was elected governor with 56 percent of the vote at the beginning of the GOP resurgence in 1990. Voinovich is a cautious moderate, somewhat more conservative on social issues -- he defended the state motto "With God, all things are possible" and says his pro-life position on abortion "is a matter of my immortal soul" -- than on fiscal policy. Consequently, he frequently held the more conservative Republicans in Columbus at bay while muddling the party's image as the taxpayer's best friend.

In addition to some tax cuts, Voinovich supported approximately twenty tax increases while governor. When the state supreme court ruled that Ohio's funding mechanism for the public schools was unconstitutional, Voinovich dutifully backed a $1 billion sales tax increase to mollify his black-robed betters. His record on spending wasn't much better: Between 1991 and 1999, the state budget more than doubled despite anemic population growth. Only six states increased spending more rapidly during this time period. At a 1998 speech at which Voinovich was touting what he claimed was his record fiscal restraint, a Republican activist turned to me and whispered, "I'm a moderate, but c'mon. Cut spending, George!"

Voinovich's reluctance to rein in government didn't derail the Ohio Republican juggernaut, however. His administration was still considered an improvement in the state's business climate over his Democratic predecessors'. Voinovich was re-elected to a second term with 72 percent of the vote in 1994, the highest margin of any governor in the country. He received 43 percent of the black vote (in re-election bids as mayor of Cleveland, Voinovich had carried the city's African-American voters). And he was joined in statewide office by three other politicians who would play a large role in the Ohio Republican Party for the next decade: Auditor Jim Petro, Attorney General Betty Montgomery, and State Treasurer Ken Blackwell. (Bob Taft, bearer of a famous Republican family name, was already serving as secretary of state.)

Montgomery and Petro were pro-choice moderates, though the former was known mainly for her strong law-and-order stands and support for capital punishment. Blackwell, a former Cincinnati mayor and veteran of Jack Kemp's Department of Housing and Urban Development, was originally appointed by Voinovich as treasurer on an interim basis in March 1994. He was also a staunch conservative: pro-life on abortion, committed to slashing taxes and spending, and frequently critical of his GOP colleagues' moderation. While Voinovich's motto was, "Doing more with less," Blackwell begged to differ, frequently saying in speeches: "We might be doing less with more or more with more, but we're definitely not doing more with less." The state legislature was similarly split between moderates like House Speaker Joann Davidson and conservatives like Bill Batchelder.

DESPITE THE GOP's moderate bent, conservatives nevertheless made some progress on life issues. In 1995, the legislature passed and Gov. Voinovich signed the country's first partial-birth abortion ban, although a U.S. Court of Appeals later found the statute's definition of the procedure too broad. The state subsequently made it a felony to perform abortions after 24 weeks. Then in 1997, the Ohio legislature approved a bill requiring a minor to receive at least one parent's permission before obtaining an abortion. The general assembly also worked to expand gun rights by passing concealed-carry legislation, but couldn't overcome Voinovich's veto.

The Ohio Republican Party, chaired since 1988 by Robert T. Bennett, became a highly sophisticated operation. It opened a new headquarters in Columbus and expanded into a virtual service bureau for its candidates throughout the state. It had regional field representatives throughout Ohio, at one point basing the northeastern regional field director out of the Cuyahoga County GOP's offices in Cleveland. The state Democratic Party under David Leland struggled to keep up.

In 1998, term limits and the desire for upward mobility forced a reshuffling of the Republican deck. With John Glenn retiring, Voinovich set his sights on the Senate. Taft decided to run for governor, an office he had wanted eight years earlier but declined to seek because party leaders wanted to clear the field for Voinovich. There was just one problem: Blackwell wouldn't wait his turn. He began telling conservative Ohioans -- and anyone else who would listen -- that he was also running for governor.

Blackwell told the Cleveland Plain Dealer that Taft was "attached at the hip to the status quo." As if to illustrate the point, Republican leaders moved quickly to muscle Blackwell out of the primary. By January, Taft had been endorsed by 81 of the 88 state county chairs, 51 of the 66 members of the Republican State Central Committee, and 78 of the 81 GOP state legislators. Robert Bennett was openly telling the media he preferred to avoid a Taft-Blackwell primary. "The upside to a primary is, if you don't have any name recognition, it gives you the ability to get name recognition," the chairman told the Plain Dealer. "The downside is that you burn money, and money's hard to come by, particularly with today's contribution limits."

Republican leaders urged Blackwell to run for Taft's job as secretary of state, a move that had the added benefit of pushing another conservative, state legislator Ed Kasputis, out of a statewide race. "Ken's getting a lot of advice right now," the Ohio GOP executive director told the local media. "He's getting a lot of calls from county chairmen urging him to run for secretary of state."

Initially, Blackwell wouldn't bite. He told reporters, "There are only three options I have considered: Running for re-election, running for governor or entering the private sector. I have ruled out the private sector. And I will be a candidate in 1998. And my focus is on being a candidate for governor." The Dayton Daily News quoted him as saying, "The only thing worse than running for secretary of state would be being secretary of state."

Yet Blackwell would end up doing both. Reportedly promised up to $4 million in campaign funds by the state party leaders -- as well as their blessing if a future GOP president nominated him for a Cabinet slot -- if he bowed out of the governor's race and ran for secretary of state, Blackwell folded. That November, Voinovich was elected to the U.S. Senate, Taft won the governorship, Blackwell became secretary of state, and Republicans maintained their stranglehold on the statewide non-judicial elected offices. In 2002, the GOP reshuffled again as Montgomery and Petro traded jobs to avoiding being term-limited out of office.

SOME REPUBLICANS PROBABLY look back ten years and wish they had juggled differently. After an early feint to the right, Taft quickly reverted to Voinovich's tax-and-spend ways. In 2001, he sought a $465 million tax increase on businesses (of which he got about $350 million). He slapped another $400 million on top of that the following year while raising the cigarette tax by 31 cents a pack. State spending continued to rise faster than inflation and population growth combined. Taft nevertheless ran to his 2002 Democratic opponent's right on taxes and spending, winning by 20 points.

In his second term, the charismatically challenged governor's droning for dollars became almost comical. "We need new revenue, and we need it right away," Taft intoned during his 2003 State of the State address. He later called for a "season of sacrifice," which would have included hitting the service sector with a 5-cent sales tax, doubling the tax on beer, new levies on businesses, increasing electricity taxes by one-third, and sticking another 45 cents a pack on the cigarette tax. Although some taxes were also to be cut, Taft's plan represented a significant net tax increase.

The Cato Institute repeatedly gave Taft an "F" on its annual fiscal report card for the nation's governors, ranking him toward the bottom. Time magazine labeled him one of the three worst governors in the country. Unified Republican control of the state government didn't stop a 20 percent "temporary" sales tax hike even as the state continued to hemorrhage jobs. A Republican activist in the state quipped, "The power to Taft is the power to destroy."

Fiscal policy isn't the only area in which Taft destroyed, or at least damaged, the Republican brand. He didn't manage the gifts he received much better than the state budget. On August 17, 2005, he was charged with four misdemeanors for failing to disclose roughly $5,800 in gifts. It was mostly penny ante stuff -- an $87 stuffed bear, a $125 framed photograph, some hockey tickets, free meals, golf outings, and pottery -- but the sight of the governor in court didn't go over well with the voters. Taft was the first Ohio governor to be charged with a crime while in office.

Occurring at the same time was "coingate," a scandal in which the state Bureau of Workmen's Compensation was investigated for placing $50 million in investments into a rare coin business run by Tom Noe, a big GOP donor. The scandals took a toll on Taft's popularity. A Zogby poll put his approval rating at 6.5 percent, among the lowest ever recorded. Democrats were already running against the Republicans' "culture of corruption" and soon there was a national tie-in as well: Congressman Bob Ney was ensnared by his dealings with Jack Abramoff. It was no surprise when the 2006 elections hit Ohio Republicans hard. If anything, it should have been much worse.

Now Buckeye State political conditions favor the Democrats. The state Democratic Party under Chris Redfern is growing and innovative like the GOP in the '90s. Candidates are winning who would have been too liberal for statewide office ten years ago, like Sen. Sherrod Brown. Brown's 12-point victory over incumbent Mike DeWine proved even Taft-Voinovich Republicans are vulnerable.

IT WOULD BE COMFORTING if the moral of this story were simply: Turn right, GOP. Republicans don't have to raise taxes, spend irresponsibly, or do favors for Abramoff. But Ken Blackwell opposed the taxing and spending, zinged Republicans who "campaign like Ronald Reagan but govern like [1980s Democratic governor] Dick Celeste," and promoted the 2004 marriage initiative that helped re-elect President Bush. His gubernatorial campaign in 2006 was lackluster, but on policy he gave conservatives everything they could ask for -- and still he lost as badly as anyone else. Then again, maybe that is the moral of the story: Once a party loses its credibility, it takes more than one election to gain it back.

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About the Author

W. James Antle III, author of the new book Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?, is editor of the Daily Caller News Foundation and a senior editor of The American Spectator. You can follow him on Twitter @jimantle.