The following article was originally published in the Ohio Capital Journal and published on News5Cleveland.com under a content-sharing agreement.
After a contentious meeting outside Columbus, the Ohio Republican Party has agreed to endorse the full slate of incumbent statewide officeholders. Meanwhile, the party decided not to wade into a crowded race for U.S. Senate — the inverse of the Democratic party’s endorsement decisions just a day prior.
But the anger and frustration among activist voters sounds about the same on both sides of the aisle. Ahead of the Democratic Party meeting Thursday, Democratic Senate hopeful Morgan Harper and her supporters launched one final flurry of appeals for the party to remain neutral. Instead, Democrats gave their stamp of approval to Ohio Democratic U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan and a handful of supreme court candidates. The party stayed out of the governor’s race, citing requests from both of the candidates running.
In Lewis Center Friday, two women with homemade signs stood along the parking lot driveway, bundled head-to-toe against the 20 degree chill.
“Because we have a country to save,” Cara Tauro explained, “and it starts with Ohio, and DeWine is not a Republican or a conservative.”
Her sign read “there’s an elephant in the room,” using the GOP’s elephant icon as a stand in, “and it isn’t Mike Tyrant RINO DeWine.”
Republican U.S. Senate candidate Mark Pukita was on hand as well, and he rallied together 40-odd supporters to urge the party’s central committee not to endorse in any race ahead of the primary election.
“Listen, this endorsement is like a tool,” he said outside a roomful of supporters glued to a committee meeting livestream. “Let’s look at a hammer. You can use a hammer to build a beautiful house. You can use a hammer to commit murder.”
Pukita argued the state party and county parties should stay out of the primary endorsement business altogether, and described a county party endorsement as a “litmus test” for whether or not it’s corrupt.
The at times tortuous, hours-long meeting casts some doubt on the GOP’s aura of dominance in statewide politics. The committee repeatedly bogged down in debates over procedure, points of order, and votes on whether and how the group could vote.
Gov. Mike DeWine’s support in the party has looked shaky for some time, and the evaporation of small dollar donors in his latest campaign filings underscores that appearance. Friday’s meeting offered another example, as members who opposed endorsement tried to peel individual officeholders from the slate. But DeWine wasn’t the only one to face their ire — they first tried to excise Secretary of State Frank LaRose from the list of endorsements.
When that proved unsuccessful, one member called for the committee to vote on endorsements separately by roll call vote. Party chair Bob Paduchik insisted they weren’t set up for that, and instead their system was to hold the vote by secret ballot.
For those already skeptical of the process, the procedural thicket and secretive decision seem unlikely to assuage their suspicions.
At the same time, it’s reasonable to ask what’s the point of an endorsement after a party’s voters have chosen their nominee in a primary? This argument, for the party’s role in nudging voters toward strong general election candidates, was raised by central committee members, and it was quickly met by jeers in the room of Pukita supporters.
Pukita rejected the idea, too, referencing one of the more notable examples of a politician bucking received wisdom about general election viability.
“These people wouldn’t have endorsed Donald Trump, right? They would not endorse him if he runs in 2024,” he said. “They’re going to endorse Mike DeWine, and Mike DeWine will get slaughtered in the general election if he wins the primary. So, I’m not I’m not buying that. I hear what they’re saying, but I’m not buying that.”
In a video message on Twitter after the endorsement, DeWine thanked supporters from “all four corners” of the state. He promised that with the party’s support, he and Lt. Gov. Jon Husted, “will keep fighting and winning for Ohio.”
Pukita, of course, won’t have to deal with a party endorsement in his U.S. Senate bid. Gubernatorial candidate Jim Renacci, on the other hand, will.
“It was very hard to watch my Republican party conduct business today,” he said after the vote.
He noted the relatively close result, with the party backing the slate 36-26, and emphasized the number of committee members who have professional ties to the governor as appointed officials or lobbyists.
“That alone should disqualify them from voting,” Renacci complained. “And as I said, if they were disqualified, this slate would’ve failed bigly.”
Renacci may have a point. But it’s also worth noting Republicans haven’t exactly been clamoring for the governor’s son to recuse himself in redistricting cases coming before the state supreme court.
As the committee was voting, Pukita and a couple dozen supporters trooped out into a frigid, sunny afternoon holding signs saying, “no more DeWine.” Just outside the meeting room windows, they chanted “let us decide,” at the top of their lungs.
The shades were drawn. It wasn’t clear if anyone inside was listening.