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Published: Sunday, 10/21/2007

State GOP chides District 5 rivals over bitter campaign


The battle for the conservative soul of the Republican Party is playing out across Ohio s sprawling 5th Congressional District in a campaign of negative attack ads that party leaders fear will harm the GOP.

The fight between state Sen. Steve Buehrer and state Rep. Bob Latta for the seat solidly held for two decades by the late Paul Gillmor has drawn warnings from Columbus.

A negative, divisive primary campaign will not only harm our efforts to retain this important seat in the December general election but also will hurt the winner s ability to unify the base and avoid unnecessary future challenges, reads a letter the Ohio GOP sent Friday.

With less than three weeks to campaign for the Nov. 6 primary, Mr. Buehrer and Mr. Latta have aggressively sniped at each other over who really bears the mantle of conservatism. Gone is the solemnity that marked the passing of Mr. Gillmor, a Republican stalwart whose death last month sparked the intraparty skirmish.

The short time frame has perhaps intensified the fervor of the race, meaning that you ve got a much shorter time to get your message out, draw contrasts, and talk about your record, Mr. Buehrer (R., Delta) said.

GOP candidate Steve Buehrer has drawn rebukes from the state party. GOP candidate Steve Buehrer has drawn rebukes from the state party.

Also running in the primary are Fred Pieper of Paulding, Mike Smitley of Van Wert, and Mark Hollenbaugh of Bowling Green.

Mr. Latta (R., Bowling Green) said negativity usually crops up when a candidate s polling indicates that he lacks name recognition. A recent poll of 300 likely Republican primary voters commissioned by the Latta campaign gave Mr. Latta a 41 percent to 20 percent edge over Mr. Buehrer, with 31 percent of voters undecided.

Club for Growth

As the son of Delbert Latta, the district s congressman between 1959 and 1989, Mr. Latta definitely enjoyed more public awareness at the start of the campaign. But Mr. Buehrer said his name recognition is growing.

One of the reasons for Mr. Buehrer s heightened recognition is a TV ad blitz by the Club for Growth, which endorsed him after screening both candidates.

The Washington-based PAC attacks Mr. Latta for a 2003 budget vote that temporarily raised the state sales tax. In defiance of Republican leadership, Mr. Buehrer voted against the increase.

Mr. Latta responded with an equally hostile ad. It criticized Mr. Buehrer for sponsoring a tax increase of his own, a gasoline tax increase, and accepting almost $8,000 in donations from Tom Noe, a disgraced Republican fund-raiser who stole from a $50 million rare-coin investment made by the state s injured workers fund.

GOP candidate Bob Latta has drawn rebukes from the state party. GOP candidate Bob Latta has drawn rebukes from the state party.

The ad neglects to mention that Mr. Latta voted for the gasoline tax increase as well and received more than $1,000 from Noe.

When you re attacked, the rules of engagement change, unfortunately, Mr. Latta said last week.

Mr. Latta filed a complaint with the Ohio Elections Commission over a news release and e-mail issued by the Club for Growth. The commission ruled last week that the campaign materials were misleading and distorted Mr. Latta s record.

Despite pouring more than $100,000 into the race, the Club for Growth does not consider itself to be stoking hostilities.

After last year s election ousted the Republican majorities in Congress, the club views this campaign as an opportunity to restore conservative values such as low taxes, less regulation, limited government, and free trade to the GOP.

The elected Republicans in Washington did lose their sense of purpose, said Patrick Toomey, the club s president. Too many of them became interested in holding onto political power, instead of their principles.

Formula for prosperity?

Mr. Toomey witnessed the dilution firsthand as a member of the House of Representatives between 1999 and 2005. In Pennsylvania s 2004 Senate primary election, the Harvard-educated banker and restaurateur unsuccessfully challenged incumbent Republican Arlen Specter, a candidate he regarded as too liberal.

With 40,000 members nationwide and $172,369 on hand as of July, the Club for Growth targets its resources against Republican candidates who might compromise on taxes, trade, and spending.

It funnels money into GOP primaries, instead of general elections, because the Democrats already have a very well defined anti-growth, anti-market economic philosophy, Mr. Toomey said.

With each of the frontrunners having raised more than $230,000, the club s participation gives Mr. Buehrer a six-figure cash advantage over Mr. Latta.

Mr. Latta said he subscribes to the same core beliefs held by the club, but Mr. Toomey questions whether he would follow the club s doctrine when push comes to shove.

As evidence of that doubt, Mr. Toomey cited, as the club has in its materials, the 2003 budget vote and a 1998 vote to place a sales tax referendum on the ballot.

Mr. Latta said he personally voted against the referendum once it was on the ballot. He voted for the budget proposal by then-Gov. Bob Taft in 2003 because any alternative to a sales tax increase would have required a half-billion dollar cut in education funding.

If it were as simple as that, what should we do? Mr. Toomey said in response. Have 40 percent, 60 percent, 70 percent tax rates and spend it all on education and we re going to have a bigger and stronger economy? Obviously not. There s plenty of government waste.

Drawing on an 11-year Statehouse career, Mr. Latta referenced his push to curb the estate tax as proof of his conservative credentials.

You hope that through all those years, people really know who you are instead of what you ve become in a commercial, Mr. Latta said.

Mr. Toomey acknowledged that he is not real familiar with the local economic situation in parts of Ohio, but he said the Club for Growth s principles are the formula for prosperity.

Offsetting tax cuts

The realities of that formula might be unpopular within the rural 5th District, where a seemingly endless spread of cornfields line the county roads. When asked how the Club for Growth would offset tax cuts, Mr. Toomey instantly suggested eliminating all agricultural subsidies.

Between 2003 and 2005, the federal government paid farmers in the 5th District $306 million, according to the Environmental Working Group, a Washington-based nonprofit.

The possibility of removing those payments might one day pit the Club for Growth against Mr. Buehrer, who said, I m always one who campaigns with the interests of agriculture on my mind.

Contact Joshua Boak at:jboak@theblade.comor 419-724-6728.

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