Tea for two? Not in Ohio’s GOP auditor race

Published 12:00 am Sunday, May 2, 2010

COLUMBUS (AP) — Tea party politics in Ohio is playing its most significant role in the intensely competitive primary for state auditor this spring.

Republican candidates — Delaware County prosecutor David Yost and state Rep. Seth Morgan — didn’t intend to compete against each other in the auditor’s race.

Yost started out as the liberty-minded tea party’s favorite for attorney general. Morgan, a tea party regular, was running an underdog campaign against GOP Auditor Mary Taylor. But Taylor dropped out to become running mate for Republican gubernatorial candidate John Kasich — and things got complicated.

The Ohio Republican Party wooed Yost out of the attorney general’s race and into the auditor’s race since party heavyweight Mike DeWine, a former U.S. senator, was the party’s favorite for Ohio’s top lawyer.

Political scientist A. James Reichley, author of “The Life of the Parties,” said Republicans are doing a balancing act this year because of tea party politics.

“There’s obviously a lot of excitement on that side and the Republicans are trying to draw on that,” he said. “That’s a wise thing to do, but they have to do that without alienating moderates, who hold the key to it all in populous urban states.”

There are no Democratic primaries for top state offices in Ohio this year, and the only other GOP primary for statewide office is for secretary of state. The primaries are May 4.

The winner of the GOP primary for auditor will face Hamilton County Commissioner David Pepper, a Democrat, in November; the GOP nominee for secretary of state will face Democrat Maryellen O’Shaughnessy.

In the race for secretary of state, Ohio Sen. Jon Husted, a former House speaker, and Sandra O’Brien, who lost a bid for state treasurer in 2006, are seeking their party’s nomination.

Husted is running on a decade-long record in state government, including a push for election and redistricting reforms. O’Brien has won the tea party endorsement with her conservative record and crusade against higher taxes. Husted has $2 million in the bank; O’Brien has $52,000.

In a year when tea party activists are at the ready to denounce politics as usual, the GOP move to steer Yost into the auditor’s race set off a protest outside party headquarters.

Morgan, 32, a first-term legislator, CPA and business owner from Huber Heights, said he had been stumping for Yost’s attorney general campaign when it happened. The move upset supporters of both campaigns, he said.

“Part of it is they’re tired of the same old party politics: the backroom deals, the musical-chairs candidates,” he said.

Yost, 53, a former county auditor from Columbus, continues to tout his conservative credentials with voters. In robocalls against President Barack Obama’s health care bill, for example, the label “Republican” was left at the end of the message.

Campaign spokesman Gene Pierce said Yost is simply highlighting his record.

“Dave is a conservative. He is pro-life, pro-family, he has a record as a conservative, as a county auditor, as a county prosecutor,” Pierce said. “We’re not ashamed of being Republican. But there are moderates in the Republican Party and Dave is a conservative member.”

Morgan points out that the party made Taylor’s experience as a CPA the basis for her 2006 campaign, but passed his by this year.

“As a CPA, I agree that it’s a big deal,” he said. “I don’t know why we make rules for attorneys general (that they be lawyers) but don’t make rules for auditors. This campaign is about the merits of my background, and the independence I’ll show in running the office.”

But Morgan said that running against the party apparatus is winning him voters.

“They want an auditor with an independent mind,” he said. “When you’re asked by the governor to run, like David Pepper, or you’re asked by the party, like Dave Yost, it calls that objectivity into question.”

Morgan was the first big candidate to be endorsed by the newly formed Ohio Tea Party PAC. He also scored symbolic victories against party leaders when he landed local GOP endorsements in Cuyahoga and Greene counties, the respective home turfs of former state GOP chairman Bob Bennett and current chairman Kevin DeWine.

But the Yost campaign can brandish its own impressive endorsement: Ohio’s conservative darling Ken Blackwell, the former secretary of state and gubernatorial nominee who now frequents talk television.

“That says a lot,” said Pierce. “Ken is a conservative’s conservative. He is a passionate conservative and he doesn’t endorse people that don’t share his conservative values. It’s a real coup for Dave Yost to get that, a real asset.”