COLUMBUS — The Ohio Republican Party today overwhelmingly coalesced behind a veteran political operative as its new leader despite an upstart insurgency from its conservative wing claiming the party is more interested in winning elections than developing and maintaining its core values.
Matt Borges, currently the party’s executive director, won the approval of the party’s State Central Committee to replace another long-time GOP leader, Bob Bennett. Mr. Bennett was brought back last year in the midst of a presidential election to right the party ship after an internal rebellion led then party chairman Kevin DeWine to step down.
Mr. Borges faced a vocal but ultimately voter-weak challenge from Tom Zawistowski, president of the Portage County Tea Party and former president of the Ohio Liberty Coalition, the closest thing Ohio has to a statewide Tea Party organization. Mr. Zawistowski argued that the party’s decision-makers were looking more for a campaign manager to re-elect Gov. John Kasich in 2014. Kay Reynolds, of Scioto County, was elected as the party’s vice chairman.
"Folks, electing Republicans matters, and we have to remind Ohioans of that," Mr. Borges said.
A small but vocal group of Tea Party members in the back of the room have suggested that failurme of the party to appeal to its conservative base could lead to formation of third-party challenges in the future that would weaken the party’s chances of winning elections. Mr. Zawistowski, however, downplayed that threat after the vote as Mr. Borges pledged to work with him to help unify the party.
Most recently, in 2010, Mr. Borges led the successful campaign of State Auditor Dave Yost, one piece of a GOP landslide under Mr. DeWine that swept all Democrats out of statewide office and returned control of the General Assembly to Republicans.
But despite the wins, a fight for control of the party between Mr. DeWine and elements supporting Mr. Kasich ultimately led to Mr. DeWine’s resignation. All of the 2010 gains will be on the line in the 2014 election cycle.
Mr. Zawistowski said the party's chances of winning in 2014 and 2016 are "suspect" in its current condition.
He argued the inconsistency of the party's position opposing President Obama's healthcare law while the party's governor is pursuing a partnership with the federal government to expand Medicaid under the law.
Mr. Borges had the support of all of the statewide non-judicial officers as well as U.S. House Speaker Jon Boehner and U.S. Sen. Rob Portman.
Some within the conservative wing of the party have also challenged Mr. Kasich's proposal to expand the sales tax base and raise taxes on shale oil and natural gas drilling to help underwrite a broad income tax cut for individuals and small businesses.
Both proposals were removed by the GOP-controlled House from the proposed two-year budget, although the Senate appears more open to considering some form of Medicaid expansion separate from the budget bill. Mr. Zawistowski characterized the fight as a waste of valuable time that should have been focused on fighting Democrats.
The central committee consists of 66 members, one man and one woman from each of the state’s 33 Senate districts. Fifty-eight were present today.
Mr. Borges has faced questions about his 2004 plea bargain to a charge of misuse of public office stemming from fund-raising issues related to campaigns of former state Treasurer Joe Deters, now Hamilton County prosecutor. The conviction was later expunged.
He has also found himself having to answer for federal and state tax liens that he said were tied to a dispute over the sale of a home.
Mr. Borges acknowledged the controversy and made the case that he has fought his way back, as will the party.
"We will perservere, and we will succeed, just as I have," he said.