Politics & Policy

After Taft

Can Ohio Republicans recover?

Last week’s conviction of Gov. Bob Taft on four misdemeanor ethics charges has put another dent in the Ohio Republican party’s image of invincibility–and cast a long shadow over the party’s 2006 candidates.

Over the last decade, the GOP has consolidated power by racking up win after win in the Buckeye State. Republicans today hold every statewide constitutional elected office (including uninterrupted control of the governorship since 1991), both U.S. Senate seats, and majorities in both houses of the state legislature, the state supreme court, and Ohio’s congressional delegation. But these Republican majorities haven’t aged well.

The problem runs deeper than undisclosed gubernatorial golf outings and the state’s rare-coin investment scandal. Republicans were swept into office during the 1990s on a platform of low taxes, fiscal responsibility, and robust economic growth. In recent years, they have instead given Ohioans higher taxes, increased spending, and a generally lackluster economy.

Taft and the Republican-controlled legislature boosted the sales tax by 20 percent, a $2.9 billion “temporary” tax increase that some would like to give more staying power. While this was justified on predictable deficit-hawk grounds, state expenditures continued their upward trajectory. In the years preceding the sales-tax hike, spending grew twice as fast as inflation and more than ten times as fast as the population–despite unified Republican control of state government.

For two years running, Taft has received an “F” in the Cato Institute’s “Fiscal Policy Report Card on America’s Governors,” ranking him toward the bottom. When he did recommend lower income-tax rates earlier this year, he proposed offsetting tax hikes elsewhere: doubling the tax on beer and wine, boosting levies on cigarettes by 45 cents a pack, and increasing electricity taxes by one-third.

In short, much of what conservatives fear about ossified Republican majorities is on display in Ohio. But Taft (who refuses to resign) is mercifully term limited and Democrats aren’t alone in campaigning against the mess in Columbus.

“I’m not the second coming of Bob Taft,” insists Ohio secretary of state Ken Blackwell, the frontrunner for next year’s GOP nomination for governor. As if to prove it, his stump speeches hit the state Republican establishment as hard as if they were his Democratic general-election opponents.

Blackwell describes the budget proposed by Taft and passed by the Republican House as continuing “tax and spend policies.” He points out that the 71-percent increase in the state budget over the last ten years occurred “under Republican leadership.” He favorably compares his tenure as secretary of state to that of his predecessor, a fellow named Taft, and zings Republicans who “campaign like Ronald Reagan but govern like Dick Celeste,” Ohio’s last Democratic governor.

The implication is that his two rivals for the nomination, Attorney General Jim Petro and Auditor Betty Montgomery, are Taft-Celeste clones rather than Reagans. Blackwell points out that he has “always been pro-life,” reminding pro-lifers that Montgomery is pro-choice and Petro switched to their side only five years ago. He is calling for a constitutional amendment to limit state spending growth to 3.5 percent or inflation plus population increase, an idea Petro calls a “gimmick” and that Montgomery argues would be catastrophic.

Blackwell’s unusually aggressive campaign against fellow Republicans has two objectives. The first is to win the primary ballots of conservatives fed up by their party’s big-government drift. The second is to be able to compete in the general election without taking on Taft’s baggage.

Unsurprisingly, a common criticism of Blackwell among some longtime Republicans is that he doesn’t play well with others. These veteran party activists feel that he shreds Reagan’s eleventh commandment, fails to give his colleagues sufficient credit for their accomplishments, and crosses the line by criticizing his opponents’ GOP bona fides.

Yet this combative approach does appear to be paying dividends. Blackwell has propelled himself from the back of the Republican gubernatorial pack to the lead in most polls. A July poll paid for by Blackwell’s campaign shows him leading Montgomery by 15 points, Petro by 16.

Charges of party disloyalty have been blunted by the fact that Blackwell tends to break with Republican leaders only when it involves siding with the GOP’s conservative base. When Taft and Petro came out against last fall’s Ohio marriage amendment, for instance, Blackwell was prominently on the side of the 73 percent of Republicans who ultimately voted for it. The chairman of the Ohio Republican party reportedly dismissed a Blackwell-backed effort to repeal the sales-tax increase as a “ridiculous media stunt,” but you don’t have to be Karl Rove to figure out whose position was shared by the party rank-and-file.

But this only shows that the first part of Blackwell’s strategy, winning over conservatives, is working. It is less clear how the swing voters he needs to become governor are responding to his campaign. Montgomery and Petro are both less ideologically polarizing figures, especially since national Democrats have sought to make Blackwell the Katherine Harris of the 2004 presidential election.

Then again, the eventual Republican nominee may discover that the biggest obstacle to victory isn’t the Democratic candidate–it’s Bob Taft.

W. James Antle III is an assistant editor at The American Conservative.

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