Conservative restlessness within their own party poses challenges to three Republican stars in the battleground state of Ohio, where House Speaker John Boehner, Sen. Rob Portman, and Gov. John Kasich all have riled up the right.
Kasich upset some by pushing for certain tax increases and embracing Medicaid expansion under President Barack Obama's health care overhaul; Boehner is clashing with conservative groups over the federal budget; and Portman faces backlash from social conservatives over his about-face in favor of gay marriage.
Whether the GOP trio can hold Republicans together has sweeping political implications, given Ohio's role as a swing state and the three men's own national profiles. Kasich and Portman have been floated as presidential-ticket contenders, while Boehner seeks to hang on to one of Washington's most powerful jobs.
Some party dissidents feel betrayed, seeing an orchestrated effort to court support among the roughly 20 percent of unaffiliated voters in Ohio's middle. Kasich could face a primary challenge in 2014 and lose some conservatives to a Libertarian candidate in November. People are lining up to oppose Boehner in the district he has held more than two decades, while there's talk of recruiting a primary challenger for Portman in 2016.
"The Republican Party needs to know what it stands for," said Tom Zawistowski, a leader in the Ohio tea party movement. "We're not going to let them slide."
Given the current volatility and uncertainty in U.S. politics, what happens with the three leaders in Ohio, often seen as a political bellwether, "could serve as a beacon of national interest," said Barbara Trish, an associate political science professor at Iowa's Grinnell College who studies political parties.
Veteran Ohio GOP consultant Mark Weaver said division over strict adherence to philosophy and winning elections isn't unique to state Republicans, that "it's similar to one we're seeing around the country. Like the Democrats, the Republican Party has some natural tension inside it, but given the horrific performance of Barack Obama, we're going to be united in bringing America back from the Obama policies."
Republican Secretary of State Jon Husted said Boehner, Portman and Kasich face a classic political conflict: whether to follow, or lead, public opinion.
"These guys have been pretty successful in their own right; they're pretty smart politically. They're trying to skate, as Wayne Gretzky says, to where the puck's going to be, not necessarily where the puck is," Husted said. "That path is not always clear."
Ohio consultant Curt Steiner places Portman in the leader category. The Cincinnati native stunned conservative backers in March when he announced his support for same-sex marriage, after his son Will came out as gay.
"I think history will show that he was ahead of the curve," said Steiner, who helped run Portman's first congressional campaign.
The former White House budget chief was an adviser and shortlisted potential running mate in Mitt Romney's 2012 presidential campaign, and Steiner believes Portman will continue to build his reputation as a thoughtful leader on "meat-and-potatoes issues that people focus on the most."
But some conservatives are distrustful now.
"Rob Portman's going to pay a price. He was wrong," said Zawistowski, of Portage County in northeast Ohio.
Kasich's critics suspect he has one eye on 2014 and another on 2016. He has drawn favorable national attention — including publicly from Obama — for his push to make Medicaid available to more low-income Ohioans, and for some innovative tax and spending proposals. A big re-election victory in November would almost certainly put him in play for his party's national ticket.
Talk of GOP dissidence doesn't much faze Kasich.
"I don't think anything about it," Kasich told reporters recently. "I'm not interested in all the political ... you know, if I'm interested in anything about politics, I'll read Politico."
Democrats say that while leading Republicans might be trying to appeal to a wider audience with words, their actions are still for the rich and against women's health and other issues.
"We've seen it time and time again," said Jerid Kurtz, Ohio Democratic Party spokesman. "While they may be changing their language, their actions are just as destructive to the middle class as ever."
Any GOP challengers to the Ohio trio face an uphill battle; perhaps the steepest is in the 8th House District that Boehner, of West Chester, has carried by large margins since his first win in 1990.
"It's going to be one of those David and Goliath fights," said Ann Becker, who leads the Cincinnati tea party, an umbrella for southwest Ohio groups.
Regional groups recently held a forum with possible opponents for Boehner, who this month expressed exasperation in Washington with conservative groups he felt were pushing House Republicans to oppose bipartisan budget efforts.
One announced primary challenger, Troy teacher J.D. Winteregg, hopes to attract help from Boehner critics outside of Ohio.
"Boehner is a fundraising juggernaut," he said. "You can't expect to compete unless you can raise funds from outside the state. But this race has a national narrative. It's a national race."
Veteran conservative activist Lori Viars, of Republican-dominated southwest Ohio, said she sees conservatives split into three groups: those who will vote for the "lesser of two evils" next November, those who will make a protest vote, and those who will stay home.
"That one is frankly my biggest concern," she said, worrying that lackluster turnout could hurt Republicans overall.
Sewell reported from Cincinnati. Associated Press writer Ann Sanner contributed to this report in Columbus.
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