For most of the past decade and a half, the Ohio Republican Party’s leadership was divided into two camps. There were the tax-and-spend Republicans who built solid GOP majorities throughout the state only to fritter them away through scandal, sclerosis, and a lack of economic solutions. And then there was Ken Blackwell, the government-cutting conservative thorn in the state party establishment’s side.
There was no love lost between the dominant faction and the odd man out. Blackwell was a persistent critic of Republicans in the mold of George Voinovich and Bob Taft, whom he accused of “campaigning like Ronald Reagan and governing like [1980s Democratic Gov.] Dick Celeste.” The Taft-Voinovich Republicans thought Blackwell too hard-edged for Ohioans’ tender Midwestern sensibilities and unready for primetime.
When Blackwell announced he was running for chairman of the Republican National Committee, many thought this history would repeat itself on the national stage. He was quickly endorsed by outside conservatives, including publisher, former presidential candidate, and flat-tax maven Steve Forbes and Club for Growth President Pat Toomey. But surely cooler heads inside the national party structure would prevail?
No one really knows what is going on inside the minds of the 168 national committee members who will elect the next party chairman. But so far, no disconnect between conservative activists and Republican leaders seems to have materialized. Since Blackwell jumped in the race, two potential candidates for RNC chairman have dropped out and endorsed him. One, Texas GOP chairwoman Tina Benkiser, is now a candidate for co-chair as Blackwell’s running mate. The other, Michigan national committeeman Chuck Yob, is active in the Blackwell campaign and has brought his family along for the ride. Although relatively few of those who have a vote in the Jan. 28 election have publicly endorsed a candidate, a plurality of those who have are backing Blackwell.
Blackwell’s campaign message is two-fold. Philosophically, he is running as a “no-pale-pastels” conservative who believes the Republican brand has suffered from ethical lapses, overspending, and a general propensity to govern in a “Democrat lite” fashion. Strategically, Blackwell speaks of implementing “a genuine 50-state strategy.” According to a statement released before Christmas, that means helping state party leaders raise money by recruiting major speakers for their fundraisers and transferring 10 percent of the RNC’s net fundraising proceeds to state party organizations. Blackwell promised to hold quarterly conference calls with committee members from each state and to “allocate millions of dollars to the precinct organizations in our party to rebuild from the ground up.”
Roger Villere, who is chairman of both the Louisiana Republican Party and Blackwell’s RNC bid, argues that such a 50-state strategy is necessary. “We’re not getting the help or the leadership we need from the national party,” he says. “They want to tell us how to spend our money and who to hire without seeking our input before they’ll help.” Benkiser contends that the ideological component is equally important. “America is still a center-right country,” she says. “We need leadership that focuses on fiscal responsibility, a strong national defense, and traditional values.”
“Ken Blackwell knows how to win,” Villere says, mentioning that his man has come out on top in 13 of the 17 elections he has contested. In addition to serving as mayor of Cincinnati and under fellow supply-sider Jack Kemp in President George H.W. Bush’s Department of Housing and Urban Development, Blackwell was elected state treasurer of Ohio in 1994 and won two terms as secretary of state in 1998 and 2002. Almost alone among Ohio’s statewide elected officials, Blackwell campaigned hard for the defense-of-marriage amendment on the state ballot that arguably helped President George W. Bush win a second term in 2004.
One race in Blackwell’s loss column has raised questions about whether he is the right man to lead Republicans back into the majority: he was defeated in Ohio’s gubernatorial election in 2006. Scratch that: he was shellacked, winning just 37 percent of the vote to Democrat Ted Strickland’s 61 percent. By comparison, former Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele — who is also running for RNC chair — grabbed 45 percent in a blue-state Senate race that same Democratic year.
There are two ways to look at Blackwell’s tanking in 2006, both with different implications for the RNC contest. The more moderate Ohio GOP establishment pushed Blackwell out of the governor’s race in 1998, when he might have won, and maneuvered him into another statewide office that didn’t adequately showcase his zeal for tax cuts and economic growth. By the time Blackwell’s next chance came he won the primary with 56 percent of the vote, but Gov. Bob Taft — the party bosses’ choice — had already tanked the Republican brand in the state. On the other hand, Blackwell ran a campaign that emphasized turning out the conservative base, which worked for Republicans in 2004, in an environment where stemming the bleeding among swing voters might have been more important.
Either way, Blackwell’s loss gave ammunition to his critics in the Taft-Voinovich wing of the party. “We’ve now seen what his style can do for us,” says one. “I’ll take winning with a ‘liberal’ like Voinovich any day of the week.” Even some of his erstwhile admirers lost confidence because of the gubernatorial results. One local conservative Republican activist told TAS that Blackwell “is a great spokesman for conservatism” but worried that he lost “independents” and “key parts of the state.”
“Ken is a great guy, but not a nuts-and-bolts party person,” this activist says. “Party chairmen should be organizational people, not big speakers. He has no concept of the day to day workings of a political party, is too ideological to raise the money needed, has never recruited candidates, isn’t supported by his own state organization, and is just not the right guy for this job.”
Villere begs to differ, pointing to Blackwell’s ability to raise $12 million in 2006 alone, his experience with redistricting as Ohio secretary of state, and his success in the majority of races in which he has run. “He also has a team that knows how to win,” Villere says, noting that both he and Benkiser presided over gains in their respective states in a bad election cycle for Republicans nationally. “Sometimes you can learn as much from losing a race as from winning one,” Benkiser concurs. “But I’ll tell you this: Ken Blackwell has won a lot more races than he lost and is definitely up for the challenges ahead.” Or as one pro-Blackwell blogger put it, “losing his last race did not stop Howard Dean from becoming an effective DNC Chair.”
Ken Blackwell would probably prefer being seen as the mirror image of Howard Dean: a potential party chairman who hails from the Republican wing of the Republican Party.