By Marc Kovac
In a blow to tea party groups, Republicans elected Ohio GOP Executive Director and longtime party operative Matt Borges as the next state chairman.
The decision blocked a challenge from Tom Zawistowski, head of the Portage County tea party, who managed only seven votes from the nearly 60 members on hand for a meeting Friday a few blocks from the Statehouse.
“At the end of the day, the overwhelming majority of the committee cast their vote for me,” Borges told reporters afterward. “I’m pleased and proud to have their support.”
The vote came after speeches from both candidates and their supporters, with frequent bursts of applause and occasional catcalls from the audience.
Zawistowski has campaigned for weeks, making it clear that he and like-minded voters were not happy with Republican leaders’ positions on issues, particularly a move by Gov. John Kasich to expand Medicaid eligibility and U.S. Sen. Rob Portman’s announced support of gay marriage.
Both, Zawistowski said, fly in the face of the conservative values of tea party and other Ohio voters who helped ensure a GOP sweep of statewide offices and super-majorities in the Ohio House and Senate.
Zawistowski made it clear after his defeat Friday that tea-party groups would not back down on such issues, vowing to campaign against Kasich and other Republicans who support the Medicaid expansion.
“We look at everybody individually,” he said. “We talk to them individually. We look at their records individually. And we support those who support our values. It’s that simple.”
Groups also have voiced concern about Borges’ legal entanglements, battling a series of tax liens. He also was convicted a decade ago on one count of misuse of a public office.
“Ten years ago, I was subjected to something I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy,” Borges told the state central and executive committee Friday. “I worked as hard as I know how to climb a very steep hill to come back from where that was. ... I also knew then I wasn’t the person they said I was, so I set out to prove it.”
The state’s top Republicans backed Borges’ chairmanship, including Kasich.
“People wanted to trash him, and I didn’t like that, ’cause I believe everybody deserves a second chance, period,” the governor told reporters earlier in the week. “And I think he’s a good man.”
But Zawistowski and others have left open the possibility that tea-party groups could break away from the Ohio Republican party, calling the latter a “campaign-election machine.”
“I think there’s a chance it could come to that,” he said. “Three years ago, when we would talk third party, people would say that’s crazy, you can’t split the ticket, you can’t do that. But they’re just so fed up now that they’re really seriously considering it. ... It’s a serious threat.”
He added, “We don’t think that’s the way to go, but we have people who are not satisfied with the results they get from these people they elect. And that’s what it’s all about. We need to change policy.”
Borges acknowledged the divide and said he would work to build coalitions and cooperation among the party ranks.
“We have a lot of work to do, we have a lot of outreach to do,” he said. “It’s already under way, and we are doing it. It’s all of us. We’re part of a big Republican family. As you know, sometimes family fights are the roughest fights of all. You might say something to your cousin or your brother that you wouldn’t say to anyone else, but at the end of the day, you’re still family, and you work together and you do what you know is right for the state.”
He added, “In this case, what’s right for the state unequivocally is getting John Kasich re-elected governor in 2014.”
Borges begins his chairmanship in June. He will replace Bob Bennett, who is the longest-serving party chairman in state history, at 23 years.