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Will Brewing Corruption Scandals in Ohio Have an Impact on November’s Election?

Investigations by the FBI into campaign donations and strong-arm tactics in Ohio’s Republican Party implicate Gov. Kaisch.

Ohio governor John Kasich has taken some hits since his election in 2010’s Tea Party wave; the most famous was the “Citizen’s Veto” of his anti-union legislation. 313,000 more people voted to overturn the law than had voted for Kasich himself a year earlier—and that was in an off year, with no big-ticket candidates on the ballot.

And now he’s reportedly become the target of an FBI investigation looking into allegations that he abused his power and offered “influence” to a state Republican Party official if he would step down and allow someone loyal to Kasich to take his place.

This, combined with another investigation into campaign donations to Republicans Josh Mandel (running against Senator Sherrod Brown) and Congressman Jim Renacci, shows a Republican party in turmoil—but will it be enough to make a difference in the upcoming election? Ohio is one of the focal points of a presidential campaign all but guaranteed to get messy, and Democrats will be looking for any advantage. A split within the GOP, combined with FBI agents nosing around campaign finance records and political backroom dealings, could be something with which a savvy candidate can make hay.

Battling for Party Control

In March, Andrew Manning, chairman of the Republican Party in Portage County, went to the FBI as well as state law enforcement with a complaint about Kasich. Specifically, he said that Kasich’s allies (Bryan Williams of the Ohio Board of Education and Summit County Republican Party Chairman Alex Arshinkoff) asked him to withdraw from the race for the state party’s central committee.

Kasich’s people wanted to consolidate their hold over the state party, then run by Kevin DeWine. DeWine is close to John Husted, the current Secretary of State, who has made no secret of the fact that he wants to be governor one day—so close, in fact, that reporters in the Statehouse press corps used to refer to them as “Damon and Affleck”. Kasich and his allies waged an all-out campaign—including robocalls from the governor, paid for by his campaign—to win control of the party and swept DeWine from power, putting in his place Bob Bennett, who’d been party chair for 20 years before DeWine. The party’s central committee chooses the party chair.

“Had I agreed to withdraw as a candidate, they told me I would be designated as the ‘Governor’s Guy’ in Portage County and that I would be given influence in who Gov. Kasich appoints to Kent State University boards and other state government appointments as they come open,” Manning’s statement, provided to the Columbus Dispatch, said.

On May 17, Manning’s attorney confirmed that FBI agents were in fact looking into his allegations, had interviewed Manning, and that he would have no further comment until the conclusion of the investigation.

But Manning isn’t the only one accusing Kasich of shady dealings. Maggie Cook, who worked as membership director for the Associated Builders and Contractors, told the Cleveland Plain Dealer that she was fired from her job after refusing to get out of a similar central committee race. Like Manning, Cook was a supporter of DeWine. She was cagey, and wouldn’t say directly that she thought Kasich’s people had pushed for her firing, but she did tell them, “I don’t really know what to think because they brought a new president on, but I was in sales and it was really easy to see if you were doing your job well or not. I was making all my targets. I had sales metrics, monthly and quarterly goals, and I had met all of my metrics for the year.”

The Plain Dealer noted that Kasich’s ally Rebecca Heimlich won that race after another candidate, Jean Raga, also dropped out. “Raga is married to former State Rep. Tom Raga, who after the election was appointed executive director of the Dayton Power & Light Foundation,” the paper noted.

As for who’s running the party now, well, the man in charge of day-to-day operations will be Matthew J. Borges, who in 2004 pleaded guilty to improper use of a public office and paid a fine (his record was later expunged despite the guilty plea).

It’s All About the Money

Why does control of the party matter so much to Kasich? Jennifer Brunner, former Ohio Secretary of State (a Democrat) told AlterNet that one important reason is that effective messaging matters when it comes to making policy while in office. “One of the tools you use is your state party to beat the drum on the issues you care about,” she said.

There’s also just the bad blood between Kasich and Husted and DeWine. Husted is known as a bit of an opportunist; during the battle over S.B. 5, the anti-union legislation, Brunner noted that Husted promised his employees at the Secretary of State’s office, organized with the Communication Workers of America, that they’d still be allowed to collectively bargain, undermining Kasich’s top policy fight.

But what it really comes down to, as in so many cases, is money.

According to the blog Plunderbund, the Ohio Republican Party spent $18 million in the two years leading up to the 2010 elections (when they swept the state in a dramatic reversal of Democratic gains in 2006 and 2008). And more than three times as much of that money was spent on Husted’s campaign for Secretary of State than on Kasich’s run for governor—nominally the top of the ticket. Attorney General Mike DeWine, Kevin DeWine’s cousin, was second with $1.5 million, almost twice as much as Kasich.

Plunderbund explained, “The party pays for a lot of things on a candidate’s behalf. For Kasich, they paid for yard signs, mailings and made direct contributions to his campaign. For Husted, in addition to those categories, the party funded his staff payroll, health insurance, rent and utilities, legal expenses, surveys and TV advertising.” The party also donated $859,000 directly to Husted’s campaign—and only $225,000 to Kasich.

Political parties often function as a back-door way around campaign finance limits. Federal candidates are limited to $5,000 from one person—the limit that triggered the investigation into contributions from employees at Suarez Corporation Industries to Jim Renacci and Josh Mandel. A handful of workers who make only a modest salary at Suarez, along with their spouses, had mysteriously maxed out their contributions to Renacci and Mandel. (Mandel has returned the money.) The question is whether those employees really gave such large sums of money out of their own pockets, or whether perhaps their employers were funneling money through them.

“The courts have said that when you exchange money directly with a candidate or party or PAC, that’s when there’s the potential for either real corruption or the appearance of it,” Bob Biersack, senior fellow at the Center for Responsive Politics, told the Dayton Daily News. “I’m giving you something and I expect something in return. That’s the legal premise on which contribution limits are permissible.”

According to the Dayton Daily News, statewide candidates can receive up to $23,087.40 from any one individual. (Local candidates, strangely, can receive unlimited amounts from individuals.) And rules allow political parties or other groups to spend unlimited funds on “in-kind” donations like those the Ohio Republican Party paid for for Kasich and Husted.

As Plunderbund noted, “When a candidate maxes out with a rich donor, that donor can simply start to give to another entity with higher limits—such as the Ohio Republican Party—who, in turn, conveniently ‘contributes’ money back to candidates. It’s a back door way to get more money out of donors, but requires collaboration with the party to ensure the money flows to the benefit of the candidate who developed the relationship with the donor in the first place.”

Whether Democrats will be able to make something of these investigations remains to be seen. Betty Sutton, an incumbent Dem resdistricted into running against Renacci, is a fierce campaigner who might be able to make the issue stick, and Sherrod Brown’s campaign has been steadily sending email blasts about Mandel’s connection to the questionable funds.

Kasich is already unpopular, and isn’t on the ballot this election cycle—though some of his policies will be up for a vote.

But really, what we learn from these brewing scandals is that as long as money controls our politics, the number-one goal of all politicians will be consolidating and controlling access to that money.

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