The stakes could not be higher this cycle for Ohio Republicans, as some of the top GOP leaders in America move to sideline intraparty rivalries and focus on a larger goal: delivering a victory over President Barack Obama in 2012.
Among the new guard: Speaker John Boehner, who leads the first elected tea party class on Capitol Hill; Sen. Rob Portman, a frequently mentioned vice presidential pick and the political gatekeeper to crucial southwest Ohio; and Gov. John Kasich, a gutsy former Congressman and media personality beloved by his in-state base. These Ohio Republican leaders, elected in November, are attempting to work together on a national level for the very first time.
There was enough concern about their ability to coordinate that the party brought in Darren Bearson, a seasoned national operative with extensive presidential campaign experience, to serve as the Ohio Republican Party executive director. Bearson is not an Ohio native and has no allegiances to Buckeye State Republicans at any level. Tapping him was viewed as insurance for a collection of elected officials and entrenched political operatives hesitant to relinquish control of their fiefdoms.
“Are they large personalities? Yes, they are,” Ohio Republican Party Chairman Kevin DeWine said. “Those are large personalities and large responsibilities. When it comes to delivering Ohio for our presidential nominee, there will be no daylight between Boehner, Portman, Kasich and the Ohio Republican Party.”
A perennial swing state, Ohio has flipped back and forth with the tide the past few cycles, providing narrow victories to the White House winners while also boosting the surging political party in the midterms. Ohio is pivotal to the Republicans, who have never won a presidential campaign without carrying the Buckeye State.
The GOP infrastructure has always been strong there. Ohio is a mandatory whistle stop on the party’s national fundraising circuit, and the state boasts a wealth of capable politicians and operatives with a record of winning high-profile campaigns. But over the years, these same individuals have developed competing, deep-seated alliances, and that poses a challenge in an election cycle where success will require unity.
“One of problems we have on a staff level is that everyone is tied to one of the leaders. We needed to find an ED that was from neutral ground, so we went outside of state for the first time since Brian Barry came from Texas in ’90,” said Barry Bennett, a veteran Republican operative who is based in Washington, D.C., but has advised Kasich, Portman and several Congressmen. “No one is getting special favors. Everyone will work together. True, they have not worked together like this before, but working together when it’s raining success is pretty easy to do.”
Boehner, Portman and Kasich served for a decade together in the House in the 1990s, but since that time each has emerged in his own right as a power player in national politics. And back in Ohio, they possess strengths that will lead them to chart different paths in the 2012 campaign.
Boehner will focus on keeping the Republican majority in the delegation — as well as in the House. The Ohio GOP Congressional delegation was particularly helpful to the state party in the 2010 elections — and it remains so — which is credited to Boehner’s ascension in the House Republican leadership.
Kasich will specialize in playing to the GOP base, and as governor will take a leading role in the 2012 campaign. Although not expected to concern himself with the day-to-day operations of the state party, Kasich is already showing interest in the White House contest, telling a national reporter last week that he was backing Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour (R) should he run for president.
Portman will be the party’s go-to money man and point-person for crucial vote territory of Cincinnati and greater southwest Ohio. Portman is already taking phone calls from prospective 2012 candidates and making introductions for them in-state, but has said he will not endorse anyone in the GOP primary. Portman, who won easily this past November, spent much of his campaign helping other candidates and developing relationships with others in the party.
“I think it is a collective effort,” Portman told Roll Call. “There’s an acknowledgement that Ohio is going to be key to the election. It’s always been true that Ohio’s an important swing state. When you do the math this year, my own view is, I don’t think the president can put together the Electoral College numbers without Ohio. There’s going to be a lot of focus on our state.”
Ohio Republicans were not surprised to hear Kasich was supporting the Mississippi governor, given that under Barbour’s leadership the Republican Governors Association spent millions on Kasich’s race last year. The two men also have been close for more than a decade. But the early timing of Kasich’s words — before Barbour had even officially announced a bid — surprised many in the state.
Those close to the Kasich team cautioned this could be the totality of the governor’s involvement in the presidential race for a long time, and they expect him to keep his hands off the daily campaign grind next year. Instead, those close to the governor say the eventual nominee will rely on Kasich’s greatest strength when he is needed: firing up the base in the Buckeye State.
“The base loves him. They’re willing to go into the fiery pit of hell with him,” said one Republican operative in the state.
Unlike Kasich, Ohio Republicans do not expect Portman to come out early and endorse anyone in the presidential campaign. Known for being cautious and reserved when it comes to his politics, the wonky Portman, locals say, views the early campaign horse race as a “distraction.” Portman, who is a big fan of DeWine, has indicated in previous interviews that his intention is to remain neutral in the GOP presidential primary in favor of helping all of the candidates make inroads in Ohio in preparation for the general election.
Once the GOP nominee has been picked, Republicans expect that person to knock on Portman’s door. The freshman Senator holds the keys to donors’ hearts and wallets in southwest Ohio, one of the wealthiest parts of the state.
“He’s more blue blood,” said one Republican operative in the state. “The money people really like Rob Portman because he knows the game. He’s the type of person that Republican money people really like.”
Portman is also viewed as crucial to the region’s ground game, which has become a battleground for votes in recent presidential cycles. Presidential campaigns have been won or lost depending on turnout in the handful of counties that Portman knows better than any other politician in the country.
But while Kasich and Portman each have varying degrees of public involvement in the presidential race, Ohio Republicans expect Boehner to stay out of it almost completely.
In recent cycles, Boehner has escalated his role in Ohio politics by recruiting potential House candidates and spending the final few days of last election cycle campaigning in his home state. This cycle, Boehner will have his hands full defending the Republican majority in the Ohio delegation as well as in the House. He’ll also be dealing with consequences of redistricting in Ohio, which will lose two House districts next year — likely including one held by one of the Speaker’s GOP colleagues.
“He’s going to stay focused on his leadership role and make sure that he maintains our position as best as we can in Ohio,” freshman Rep. Steve Stivers (R-Ohio) said. “All five freshmen Members of Congress are ready for whatever comes their way.”
For those reasons, Boehner will most likely take a backseat from any of the presidential drama in his home state.
“Portman sees that kind of thing as a distraction, where as Kasich sees it as a non-issue,” said P.J. Wenzel, a longtime Republican operative in Ohio. “And Boehner, it’s not his wheelhouse. It’s not what he’s focused on.”