Conservative restlessness within their own party poses challenges to three Republican stars in the battleground state of Ohio, where House Speaker John Boehner, Sen. Rob Portman and Gov. John Kasich all have riled up the right.
Kasich upset some by pushing for certain tax increases and embracing Medicaid expansion under President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul; Boehner is clashing with conservative groups over the federal budget; and Portman faces backlash from social conservatives over his about-face in favor of gay marriage.
Whether the GOP trio can hold Republicans together has sweeping political implications, given Ohio’s role as a swing state and the three men’s own national profiles. Kasich and Portman have been floated as presidential-ticket contenders, while Boehner seeks to hang on to one of Washington’s most powerful jobs.
Some party dissidents feel betrayed, seeing an orchestrated effort to court support among the roughly 20 percent of unaffiliated voters in Ohio’s middle. Kasich could face a primary challenge in 2014 and lose some conservatives to a Libertarian candidate in November. People are lining up to oppose Boehner in the district he has held more than two decades, while there’s talk of recruiting a primary challenger for Portman in 2016.
“The Republican Party needs to know what it stands for,” said Tom Zawistowski, a leader in the Ohio tea-party movement. “We’re not going to let them slide.”
Given the current volatility and uncertainty in U.S. politics, what happens with the three leaders in Ohio, often seen as a political bellwether, “could serve as a beacon of national interest,” said Barbara Trish, an associate political science professor at Iowa’s Grinnell College who studies political parties.
Veteran Ohio GOP consultant Mark Weaver said division over strict adherence to philosophy and winning elections isn’t unique to state Republicans and that “it’s similar to one we’re seeing around the country. Like the Democrats, the Republican Party has some natural tension inside it, but given the horrific performance of Barack Obama, we’re going to be united in bringing America back from the Obama policies.”
Republican Secretary of State Jon Husted said Boehner, Portman and Kasich face a classic political conflict: whether to follow, or lead, public opinion.
“These guys have been pretty successful in their own right; they’re pretty smart politically. They’re trying to skate, as Wayne Gretzky says, to where the puck’s going to be, not necessarily where the puck is,” Husted said. “That path is not always clear.”
Ohio consultant Curt Steiner places Portman in the leader category. The Cincinnati native stunned conservative backers in March when he announced his support for same-sex marriage, after his son Will came out as gay.
“I think history will show that he was ahead of the curve,” said Steiner, who helped run Portman’s first congressional campaign.
The former White House budget chief was an adviser and shortlisted potential running mate in Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign, and Steiner believes Portman will continue to build his reputation as a thoughtful leader on “meat-and-potatoes issues that people focus on the most.”
But some conservatives are distrustful now.
“Rob Portman’s going to pay a price. He was wrong,” said Zawistowski, of Portage County in Northeast Ohio.
Any GOP challengers to the Ohio trio face an uphill battle; perhaps the steepest is in the 8th House District that Boehner, of West Chester, has carried by large margins since his first win in 1990.
“It’s going to be one of those David and Goliath fights,” said Ann Becker, who leads the Cincinnati tea party, an umbrella for southwest Ohio groups.