Ohio politics: A cesspool of GOP corruption and craziness

Ohio has been a swing state that tilts to moderately conservative Republicans with relatively clean politics. That’s the Buckeye State of yesteryear. Today, Ohio politics is a cesspool of corruption, dominated by shady entrenched Republican politicians.

The leading federal and state elected Republicans have been centrist conservatives — George Voinovich, John Boehner, John Kasich and current Sen. Rob Portman, until he lost his political soul to Donald Trump.

Going into the May 3 Republican primary to succeed Portman, who’s retiring, the top candidates tried to out-Trump one another, with author J.D. Vance winning the pandering contest Friday with the endorsement of the defeated former president.

The most important Ohio Republican in Congress is Rep. Jim Jordan, whom former House Speaker Boehner calls a “political terrorist,” and who has been accused of helping to cover up a sex abuse scandal when he was a wrestling coach at Ohio State.

It’s worse in Columbus, where charges in a $61 million bribery case claim a large troubled company, First Energy, paid state legislators to get a sweetheart deal that bailed out the company at the expense of Ohio consumers. “I haven’t seen anything like it,” a top FBI investigator told the Columbus Dispatch. “This case is in a league of its own.”

While a number of Republican officials and lobbyists were charged — one of the lobbyists died by suicide — the central figure is the former GOP Speaker Larry Householder, who allegedly got most of the dark money, undisclosed, and — while taking some for personal use — parceled it out to Republican legislative candidates who won and voted for the bill that bailed out the energy company’s nuclear but mainly coal operations and gutted efficiency standards. The cost is more than $1 billion.      

Householder has pleaded not guilty, as has former Ohio Republican party chair Matt Borges.

This is the second Republican House Speaker forced out under a cloud. Four years ago, Cliff Rosenberger resigned when under federal investigation for public corruption. That investigation is still open.

Much of Ohio’s corruption is fueled by egregiously gerrymandered legislative seats. Dark money from special interests is funneled to politicians whose districts are so gerrymandered they are less likely to be held accountable for scandals like First Energy. Ohio Republicans have enhanced this advantage by a series of voter suppression measures.

The state supreme sourt, with a Republican chief justice, has repeatedly rejected the current redistricting as in violation of the state’s constitution; thus, the state legislative primaries won’t be held May 3, but later — when the redistricting is resolved.

GOP Gov. Mike DeWine won general praise for his handling of the pandemic, but mandates and shutdowns generated two right-wing challengers; they’ll probably split the anti-DeWine vote.

Jordan, with no real opposition, likely will be chairman of the Judiciary Committee — if he doesn’t run for Speaker — should the GOP take control of the House. Jordan was an Ohio State wrestling coach when many athletes — including a number of wrestlers — were sexually assaulted by a university doctor. At least six wrestlers say Jordan knew about the abuse and didn’t do anything. The Republican lawmaker denies this.

An independent investigation found that Ohio State officials knew for years and did nothing. Recently the university successfully lobbied the Republican legislature against extending the statute of limitations on these offenses. Jordan still may face an embarrassment: a docuseries, funded by George Clooney, is in the works about the Ohio State sex abuse scandal.  

In the Republican Senate primary, the leading candidates all embrace the lie that the 2020 presidential election was “stolen” from Trump.

J.D. Vance, author of the best-selling book “Hillbilly Elegy,” about the cultural and social challenges facing poorer working-class whites, was anti-Trump — but flipped and ingratiated himself with claims such as that support for Ukraine is a “massive distraction” from the real peril of drug peddlers and prospective Democratic voters illegally coming across the Southern border.

The others tried. Perennial candidate Josh Mandel likened President Biden’s vaccine mandates to the “Gestapo.” Mike Gibbons, a wealthy banker gaining in the polls, said the middle class doesn’t pay enough taxes, suggesting the rich bear too big a burden.

Some longtime conservative and former Republican office holders shake their heads at the corruption and craziness.

Jim Petro, who was a Republican legislator, state auditor and Ohio attorney general says: “When I look at these Senate candidates, it’s not my party.” On corruption he worries that “an abundance of power makes the party overconfident.” Gary Abernathy, an influential conservative columnist who lives in Ohio, writes simply that the State’s “Republican party is in absolute chaos.”

Al Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for The Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter century he wrote a column on politics for The Wall Street Journal, then The International New York Times and Bloomberg View. He hosts Politics War Room with James Carville. Follow him on Twitter @AlHuntDC.