COLUMBUS — One of the most successful and longest-serving Republican Party chairmen in Ohio could return to the job, now that the current state chairman has announced he's stepping down next week amid bitter party infighting with Republican Gov. John Kasich.
Bob Bennett has indicated a willingness to take over for Ohio Republican Party chairman Kevin DeWine, said Doug Preisse, a Kasich ally and chairman of the Franklin County Republican Party.
A message seeking comment was left Thursday for Bennett, who served as Ohio's GOP chairman from 1988 until 2009.
DeWine announced in a Wednesday night letter to the party's governing body that he'll step aside at the committee's meeting on April 13. He said he plans to preside over the election of his successor by the 66 members at the meeting.
The GOP leader's decision comes as Kasich's allies had recruited a slate of challengers to the party's state central committee, who they had believed would support DeWine's ouster.
DeWine, chairman since 2009, had said in a March 18 letter to committee members that he would not seek another term as chairman when his ends in January. Kasich allies had said that didn't go far enough, and Republican leaders in seven of Ohio's largest counties had sent a letter to DeWine asking him to resign.
DeWine on Wednesday night said he wanted to avoid a divisive vote next week over party leadership.
"Factions within our party are aligned to fight over who is best to lead us forward," DeWine wrote. "A meeting looms where that fight could erupt into a party-splitting dispute that no one will win and everyone will lament."
DeWine was unanimously elected by the state central committee to a second term in 2011. He oversaw the GOP's resurgence in the state in the 2010 elections, when Republicans swept Ohio Democrats out of four statewide offices and grabbed control of the Legislature.
Among those winners was Secretary of State Jon Husted, Ohio's top elections official, who on Thursday came to DeWine's defense.
"I told Kevin (that) he's the only chairman that's going to resign undefeated," Husted told reporters after a state Ballot Board meeting.
Asked whether DeWine's resignation puts an end to the strains within the party, Husted said, "I was focused on supporting my friend Kevin DeWine and I'm focused on being secretary of state. We'll leave the future of the Republican Party to those who are interested, were interested, in taking it over."
DeWine and Republicans had expressed concerns the infighting could jeopardize the party's efforts to deliver the battleground state this fall to the Republican challenger to President Barack Obama.
No Republican has ever won the White House without winning Ohio.
DeWine will remain on the state central committee, and plans to continue raising money for the GOP as a member of the national party's finance committee.
Preisse praised DeWine's decision on Thursday. "It is helpful in letting us now kind of circle the wagons and move forward," he said.
Preisse said Bennett is best equipped to immediately take over the chairmanship ahead of the fall presidential election. He said that would also give the state GOP time to find another chairman at the end of the year.
"While he's indicated that he's ready to assume and accept these leadership abilities, he's not interested in a second, long-term career as chairman," Preisse said. "This is something we've asked him to do, not that he's was asking to do."
Asked about DeWine's announcement, Kasich spokesman Rob Nichols said in a statement that "it's good to be able to put this behind us and move forward." Nichols declined to comment further.