Ohio Tea Party Plans Next Moves After Primary Challenge to Kasich Falls Through

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Call it history or déjà vu. But for the second time in a month, questions were almost immediately raised about a lieutenant governor’s candidacy due to tax issues and debt.

Just last month, Democratic Gubernatorial Candidate Ed FitzGerald’s lieutenant governor pick, State Senator Eric Kearney, dropped out of the race after controversy arose over about $825,000 in unpaid taxes, penalties, and debt.

At the end of last week, similar questions were raised about Brenda Mack, Tea Party activist Ted Stevenot’s choice for lieutenant governor. Public records showed she owed nearly $60,000 in unpaid taxes and penalties.

She had also filed for bankruptcy for a business she owned. And there were other questions about her finances. Mack’s presence on the ticket immediately attracted attention, since the Tea Party bills itself as fiscally conservative.

Over the weekend, Tea Party activist Ted Stevenot announced he would not be announcing his bid for governor in the primary after all, but he didn’t blame Mack’s financial troubles for his decision. Stevenot’s departure apparently paves the way for Kasich to avoid a primary opponent.

But political science experts say the Tea Party’s quick departure from the race signals something else.

"I think there’s a feeling now on the part of many Republicans, many in the Republican establishment, there is a feeling that this has gone too far, it’s really beginning to hurt them," Ohio State University political science professor Paul Beck said. "And by the same token, they can criticize the Tea Party and not pay a price for it."

Beck notes recent challenges by the Tea Party within the Republican Party underscore that line of thinking.

"They can’t win offices on their own, and they certainly couldn’t take over the state committee on their own, and so one has to wonder about their continuing clout and, you know, ability, in the end, to deliver votes -- which is the important thing," he said.

John Green, a political science professor at the University of Akron’s Bliss Institute, says there's a tipping point.

"A faction, whether it’s in the Democratic or the Republican party, can only threaten so often before they begin to lose some credibility," he said.

The way Green sees this, the events of the past week might have weakened the Tea Party’s clout a little bit.

"Certainly part of the image of any faction or any organized group is the kind of threat they can pose to other officials," Green said. "And it may very well be that the Tea Party is not as strongly united or as well organized as they would like people to perceive them to be."

But Tea Party activist Tom Zawistowski, the man who ran for leadership of Ohio’s Republican Party last year and lost, says political pundits are reading this wrong.

"They can say whatever they want, but why are they so afraid of us and why do they keep talking about us?" he said. "It’s because we are effective."

Zawistoski says the political system is rigged against common people like the ones who are represented by his organization. He says it’s common for a candidate to be the subject of threats, intimidation and bribes. Still, he says there could be a tea party challenge to Kasich this spring. Zawistowski says he’s in talks with other potential candidates right now.

"Let’s play it out in the primary," Zawistowski said. "We're more than willing to take our chances. And then after we win in the primary, let’s see if all of those Republicans who were going to back Kasich will now back the real Republican candidate for governor. My answer is they probably won't because they know they can’t buy their influence."

Zawistowski says he hopes, later this week, to announce another candidate to run in the primary. Meanwhile, the Democratic candidate for Governor might also face a primary challenge. Cincinnati area Democratic leader Todd Portune is talking about running against Ed FitzGerald in the spring.

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