Boehner Shaping Races at Home

Posted February 12, 2008 at 6:44pm

In the early fall of 2007, political prospects did not look good for Ohio Republicans.

Three longtime Ohio Members of Congress had announced their retirements, national Republicans were spending their scarce resources on a special House election in a conservative area and the party was lacking top-tier candidates in two competitive Congressional districts.

And if things don’t look good for Ohio Republicans, they really don’t look good for House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio).

As the leading Republican in the House, Boehner informally is charged with delivering for his beloved Buckeye State — and for GOP candidates there.

But a lot has changed since October: Ohio Republicans decisively won the special election to replace the late Rep. Paul Gillmor (R). And they have filled the ballot with quality candidates in almost all of the newly open Congressional districts — recruiting a rising star, state Sen. Steve Stivers, for a highly competitive Columbus-area district.

In the weeks following Rep. Deborah Pryce’s (R) retirement announcement in August, Republicans were looking at a glaring recruitment hole in the 15th district. Pryce narrowly won her last term against Franklin County Commissioner Mary Jo Kilroy (D), who has already filed for a rematch.

Initially, several Republicans, including Stivers, turned down the opportunity to run for the seat. In a phone interview on Tuesday, Stivers said he did not know Boehner that well until he got his first phone call from the Minority Leader in August after Pryce announced her retirement.

“I talked to him about it before when I said no,” Stivers said. “At that point, I was more focused on becoming Senate president and turning Ohio around.”

Yet by late September, Stivers said he was reconsidering. But it wasn’t because of incessant phone calls from Boehner; rather it was Gillmor’s death that spurred his change of mind.

As a result, Stivers said he called Boehner.

“Other than my wife … he was the first phone call I made,” said the Columbus Republican. “I never felt like he was trying to sell me. I felt like he was trying to make me see the pros and cons [of running for Congress]. He was really honest in his approach to me, which I really appreciated — and my wife really appreciated even more.”

From then on, Stivers said, Boehner was heavily involved in his campaign.

“The whole month of October … Mr. Boehner was trying to work behind the scenes,” he added.

But while Boehner may have played a big part in Stivers’ decision to run, it seems he played a smaller role in recruiting candidates for Ohio’s two other open seats. Longtime GOP Reps. David Hobson and Ralph Regula both announced their retirements early last fall, in the 7th and 16th districts, respectively.

Almost immediately after announcing he was retiring, Hobson endorsed state Sen. Steve Austria (R), who is making a bid for his seat.

“In that case, it was sort of Hobson’s guy,” said a source close to Boehner’s political operation. “Obviously he wants to do what’s best for Ohio, but he’s going to give a lot of deference to the guy who holds that seat.”

Austria said his first phone call after Hobson’s retirement was to Hobson, with whom he had already had multiple conversations about running for the seat.

But he said in a phone interview Tuesday that he first approached Boehner informally at a Columbus event in the summer of 2007 to tell him that he was interested in running if Hobson retired.

“I don’t know if anyone really recruited me,” Austria said. “I think Dave Hobson, I certainly had multiple conversations about succeeding him when he was ready to retire.”

Since Austria announced his bid, Boehner has organized two Washington, D.C., fundraisers jointly for Austria and Stivers.

And a similar situation occurred in the 16th district, where there once again was an obvious heir apparent who announced his candidacy soon after Regula retired: state Sen. Kirk Schuring (R). Of those two districts, the 16th is considered more competitive, and Democrats have recruited a state Senator there to run against the GOP nominee. Schuring faces a primary battle with Ashland County Commissioner Matt Miller.

But for all the kudos Boehner received for recruiting Stivers, there’s still one glaring hole for Congressional Republicans in the Buckeye State: The 18th district, currently held by freshman Rep. Zack Space (D) and formerly held by jailed former Rep. Bob Ney (R), features no top-tier Republicans for leadership to pump up.

The four leading Republican candidates combined raised less than a quarter of what Space has raised so far this cycle, and the state filing deadline passed more than a month ago.

Michael McTeague, a political analyst who has worked with both Democrats and Republicans in the 18th district, said he sees “nothing there of significance” when it comes to GOP recruits.

“I presume they’re going to have no real challenge to Mr. Space,” he added.

And national Democrats couldn’t be happier that Space is looking toward holding onto a district that gave President Bush 57 percent of the vote in 2004.

“The Republican candidates’ abysmal fundraising up to now in Ohio’s 18th district speaks volumes about the lack of enthusiasm for these lackluster candidates, John Boehner’s failed leadership and the strength of Zack Space as an independent fighter for the families of his district,” said Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesman Ryan Rudominer.

Republicans insist Space can’t hold onto the district this time around.

“Zack Space’s liberal record of tax hikes and runaway spending speaks for itself, and if he is hoping to sidestep his way out of an aggressive challenge then he is sorely mistaken,” said National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Ken Spain.

But that’s not Boehner’s only remaining Congressional woe in his home state.

Ohio Republicans are still dealing with a primary for the 2nd district seat held by controversial Rep. Jean Schmidt (R). Though the more prominent primary challenger, former Hamilton County Commissioner Phil Heimlich, dropped out of the race in January, Schmidt still faces another Republican challenger.

If she survives that primary, she will likely take on her 2006 Democratic opponent — and that race was close enough in the heavily Republican district to warrant a recount last cycle.

National Republicans can’t be too happy about spending $443,000 of their scarce cash on the December special election to replace Gillmor in what should have been a safe Republican seat.

What’s more, Boehner, whose district hugs the southern border of the 5th district, was not in his home state in the days leading up to the Dec. 11 special election.

“John Boehner’s leadership has been a nightmare scenario for Ohio: a slew of retirements, poor recruiting and a Republican Party in disarray,” Rudominer said.

Nonetheless, the Ohio Republican landscape is looking up compared with a few months ago — and so is Boehner’s legacy in Ohio.

“John Boehner has a national responsibility and so we recognize that we have to take care of our business here at home as a party,” said Ohio Republican Party Chairman Kevin DeWine. “We look to John for fundraising; we will look to John for political advice and leadership.”