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Commentary - New GOP Chair Faces Purification Problem

Once upon a time Ohio Republicans had somebody to unlock the Tower of Babel where they talk past each other. They had a state chairman who made them speak the same language or at least provided translators. The two chairmen who did the best job of uniting the party in the 20th century came to power in very different circumstances than the new leader faces. Republicans were desperate when they tapped Akron’s Ray Bliss in 1949 to take over. The GOP had just lost nearly everything in the 1948 election that saw President Harry Truman surprise everybody by upsetting Republican challenger Thomas Dewey. There were nearly as desperate in 1988 when they reached up to Cleveland to make Bob Bennett the first chairman of the post-Jim Rhodes’ era. Democrats, led by Gov. Dick Celeste, had shut out Republicans in back-to-back statewide elections. Ohio’s two U.S. senators were Democrats, too. Bliss and then Bennett built the party into a powerhouse that usually kept the Democrats on the sidelines. They stressed unity and compromise, in short supply these days. Bennett explained how it worked: When you don’t have anything, you unite, he said. When you have everything, they want to purify the party, he added. Republicans have it all right now, except for Democrat Sherrod Brown in the U.S. Senate. Gov. John Kasich and Sen. Rob Portman, the state’s top Republicans, know about the purification rites. Kasich wants to expand Medicaid to help more poor people get health insurance. That, according to Republican critics, makes him an Obama lover. Portman flip flopped on gay marriage. He used to oppose it and now he’s for it, based largely on a lot of introspection after learning that his son Will is gay. He’s a heretic, according to GOP social conservatives. There’s another ingredient to the Bliss-Bennett success stories that the new chairman won’t have. They came to power when a Democrat was governor. This gave them the latitude to set policy and bring malcontents into line. Republican governors elected after Bliss and Bennett took over tried to push them around but didn’t get far. Rhodes, with Bliss’ help, was elected to the first of his four terms as governor in 1962. When Bliss left for Washington to take over as national Republican chairman in 1965, Rhodes gradually turned the state party into his political annex. It stayed that way until Rhodes lost a bid for a fifth term in 1986 and the call went out for Bennett. George Voinovich, after winning re-election as governor in 1994, tried to dump Bennett but failed. Kasich already has forced one state chairman, Kevin DeWine, to resign. Bennett, who retired in 2009, took over until the vote this month. Matt Borges, the party’s executive director, is favored to win the job, but Tom Zawistowski, a Tea Party leader from Portage County, also wants to be chairman. Kasich, Portman and the other statewide officeholders back Borges. That may help Borges win the job. We’ll have to see if he has the independence to end the purification rites.   Bill Hershey is a  writer and retired statehouse correspondent.   We welcome your thoughts.  Visit our Contact Page.