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Wearing jeans and casual shirts, Adam Brandon and Brendan Steinhauser blended in during their mission to lay the groundwork for an audacious feat that, if successful, would rattle Ohio politics harder than a 10 on the Richter scale.
The Washington-based organizers aim to make the 155-year-old Ohio Republican Party a wholly owned subsidiary of the Tea Party.
"To get our message across, what we want to do is take over the GOP," said Brandon, a Cleveland native.
FreedomWorks, the Tea Party umbrella organization led by former House Majority Leader Dick Armey of Texas, dispatched Brandon and Steinhauser to Ohio last week to determine whether the state party is as ripe as it might appear for the Tea Party's taking. History has shown, Brandon said, that "third parties don't work," hence the strategy to take control of the Ohio GOP.
Through its grass-roots and social-networking outreach, including 220,000 Facebook friends, Brandon said FreedomWorks had discerned that legions of libertarians naturally aligned with the Republican Party are "distraught with the Ohio GOP" and there is "a critical mass in Ohio" searching for an alternative.
That was hardly evident in the May 4 Ohio Republican primary. The Tea Party's candidates for statewide office and for the 66-member central committee, the state GOP's governing body, were crushed by establishment Republicans endorsed by the Ohio GOP. Moreover, the state party heads into the Nov. 2 general election with its strongest statewide ticket in a generation.
Brandon attributed the Tea Party's Ohio losses to an energized but nave cadre of activists who lacked experience on the electoral battlefield: "A lot of these guys are brand new, and they did get run over by the machine."
FreedomWorks has the resources to help those activists organize into a force that eventually could challenge the GOP's old guard.
But the plan is to start now and target a handful of congressional races in which the Tea Party can make a difference, steadily gearing up for the 2012 election.
"This is a fact-finding mission, and I assume we're going to be very, very involved here in the fall," Brandon said.
From Columbus on Wednesday afternoon, he and Steinhauser headed to Dayton and Cincinnati to consult with local Tea Partiers about which races to target. One question: Should they weigh in on behalf of Rob Portman, the GOP nominee for U.S. Senate? Portman, after all, was the former budget director and trade representative for a big-spending, deficit-driving Republican president, George W. Bush.
"Let's be totally candid," Brandon said. "Anyone associated with the Bush presidency is highly tainted."
Tea Partiers, he contended, can win the hearts of Republicans with a single-minded commitment to fiscal responsibility, "not spending money you don't have." It went without saying that they oppose tax increases.
Ohio, in fact, can't spend money it doesn't have because the state constitution requires a balanced budget. The state faces a potential $8billion deficit in its next budget. Firing every one of state government's 59,000 employees would raise little more than $2 billion to apply to the budget deficit. The only viable options are tax increases and spending cuts.
About 95 percent of all state general-fund spending is in six areas: primary and secondary schools, higher education, human services, prisons, aid to local governments, and property-tax relief for homeowners. Filling the budget hole through cuts could result in school and library closings, less tuition aid and fewer college students, impoverished kids losing medical care, more felons on the street without work and higher property taxes.
In the context of the Ohio governor's race, I asked Brandon and Steinhauser whether they will lay out the reality of those budget options to Tea Partiers. Or, will they cop out by spewing the Tea Party's tired demagoguery that fixing budget problems is a simple matter of government spending less and wasting less?
"We rarely get involved in a state race," Brandon said.
Joe Hallett is senior editor at The Dispatch.